The best gifts you can give your kids

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How do you determine how you and your family will “do Christmas” every year? Do you repeat your parents’ traditions? Do you deliberately avoid them? Do you insist on creating your own traditions and steadfastly stick to them each year? Do your kids – consciously or not – dictate what Christmas will be like for the family? Or do you let fate take you wherever it wants, one year at the folks, the next in a cabin in the woods?

It’s interesting how traditions are formed. Sometimes they’re based in strong feelings of what a holiday should look like, how it should feel. Other times, they’re set up to avoid painful memories, certain family members, or unhappy situations. Sometimes they begin as happy accidents that are so much fun, we deliberately repeat them, paying homage to that first wonderful memory by recreating it each year.

My family has always spent every Christmas with extended family. At the beginning, when my husband and I were very young and just having babies, we’d haul car seats, strollers, pacifiers and diapers across the miles to visit our families in Pittsburgh. I remember my husband pulling the car over in a Waffle House parking lot so I could nurse, burp, and snuggle a little with our 3-month-old daughter on our way to spend the holidays with family. As our kids grew, I remember our son buckled into his car seat on the left, our daughter strapped into her big-girl seatbelt on the right, a fistful of french fries in her hand. We had trained our dog, bigger than both of them combined, not to beg, so in an effort to be a “good dog,” he had buried his head in the car seat, his own personal form of Time Out.

I remember Christmas Eves that preserved the traditions my husband and I had agreed upon: The kids would open family presents that night and Santa presents in the morning. When they were young, my husband always bought gifts I knew nothing about. Bouncy balls, Slurpee mix, the kids’ favorite snacks. As recently as last year, those gifts kept on coming, So did the stuffed stockings (personalized, cross stitched with love when the kids were little and I was a stay-at-home mom), the dog bone wrapped loosely enough for our mutt to find an opening and dig in, and that one special gift for each of them, the one we were excited to give, the one that would bring joy to their little faces.

When we took a cruise last year that took us many miles away from extended family and eschewed every tradition we had cherished over the years, we discovered that sometimes spontaneity is just as genuine a path to discovering the spirit of Christmas. For the first time, there was no burden of cooking, cleaning, finding activities everyone would love, or hosting out-of-towners. There was nothing but the luxury of spending time together. Nothing to distract us or add stress. We rented dune buggies and drove from one end of Cozumel to the other. We spent a day at the very resort in Jamaica where my husband and I had honeymooned 28 years before. Talk about a cool way to share our past with our children! We woke up to towel designs of snowmen and a giant Santa floating in the pool. The Grinch lurked around corners and the crew actually made it snow in the ornate ship’s lobby. None of it followed a single family tradition and all of it was fabulous.

Our gift to each other was the gift of time, and that Christmas will go down in history as being one of the most special we ever experienced. We felt no pressure to meet the expectations of Christmas – from baking cookies to sending cards to finding the perfect gifts. Instead, we simply enjoyed each other. My wish for you is that this Christmas you will give yourself permission to do the same. Rather than being pulled in a hundred different directions to meet obligations and impossibly high expectations, give the simple gift of time. You’ll never regret it.

What are your treasured holiday memories or traditions? Please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!

 

 

Finding balance in an unbalanced world

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Our country has been in flux for a while now, and regardless of what political candidate got your vote, you’re probably still worried. Add to that financial strain, increasing pressure to compete in the workplace, and, at this time of year, holiday stress to meet expectations and get along with extended family members, and it’s easy to understand why we all may feel more than a little unbalanced.

You may think only adults feel this pressure, but in reality, teenagers are also carrying a burden. They are being hit with deadlines at school, where classes are well underway and the expectations are increasing. Some are applying to colleges and feel as if their futures are on the line. If you think your job is competitive, just look at what teens are up against as they try to get into their first choice school with a minimum GPA, SAT score, leadership requirements, and the insistence that they be well-rounded to the point of exhaustion. You might be surprised to learn that during the holidays, your kids’ pressures are exacerbated by the same expectations you have of what this time should be: love, compassion, a spirit of giving, family gathered around the perfectly festive table giving thanks, thoughtful presents, and a beautifully decorated home aglow with twinkling lights. We want to live the Hallmark movie, but let’s face it, none of us ever do.

It’s upsetting for both parents and kids to discover that reality oftentimes doesn’t come close to matching our holiday dreams. If you’ve ever sat by the tree remembering when your son gleefully made that light bulb Grinch ornament you still hang every year, while he sulks in his room playing loud music, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever poured yourself an extra Hot Toddy or two to get through an evening with annoying relatives, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever opened a present that in no way resembled who you are or what you like, you know what I’m talking about.

So how do we find balance during this stressful time, both for ourselves and our children?

  1. Keep your expectations realistic. Lose the should and replace it with is. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah don’t have to meet anyone else’s standards. Regardless of what all those warm and fuzzy TV shows and movies tell us they should be, the holidays should be about what works for your family, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. I once heard someone say that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday because there are no expectations other than to eat yourself silly and lie around all day. Give yourself permission to create your own vision for how these days will unfold.
  2. Understand that your kids need a break from school and life stress just as much as you do. I’ve never agreed with teachers giving projects and massive reading assignments over breaks. If that’s the case at your kids’ school, you might want to speak to the teacher about it. Research shows that most people do better when they’re given brain breaks and time to rejuvenate. Allow your kids to just relax and enjoy a couple weeks without homework and sports practices.
  3. Give everyone permission to sleep in and take comfort in the holidays. Teenagers need more sleep than you do, so give it to them. There’s nothing wrong with rest in an otherwise busy teenager’s life. Relish the rarity of not having to be anywhere or do anything.
  4. Keep the focus on the meaning of the season, not on outdoing yourself every year with grandiose gestures and expensive gifts. Gifts should be about quality, not quantity. They should show thoughtfulness and love, and they shouldn’t put you in debt. If you’ve gone overboard in the past, there’s no shame in telling your kids that you’re reining it in from now on. You’ll teach them a valuable lesson that the holidays aren’t about breaking the bank. Take this one step further by considering giving to others through donations of gifts or time, and trust me, you’ll feel a whole lot better.
  5. Don’t force relationships. The kids may only see Aunt Kathy and Uncle Mike once a year, so of course they should be kind and welcoming. Politeness is never wrong or out of date, so insist on it when it comes to your kids’ treatment of others. But don’t insist that they spend every minute with relatives they barely know and hardly see. You can’t force feelings on anyone, and the more you try, the more likely you are to produce the opposite result – resentment and an eventual unwillingness to even try.
  6. Maintain meaningful traditions. Regardless of whatever is going on in everyone’s life, be sure to hold on to the traditions that you love. It may be saying what you’re grateful for around the Thanksgiving table, lighting the Hanukkah candles together, or opening pajamas on Christmas Eve. These traditions will sustain your family unit and create memories that will live on with your kids and maybe even future generations. Don’t let them get lost in the excess and in the minutiae of the holidays. It’s easy to lose focus of what’s truly important when you’re bombarded by all the little things that really don’t matter.

My favorite Shakespearean quote says it all: “All of life’s greatest sadnesses stem from unmet expectations.” Don’t set yourself and your family up for failure. Remember what matters and leave the rest behind. Happy holidays, everyone!

Need help working with your kids to find balance AND success? Find personalized plans with proven success at www.teenagersuccess101.com. And for more tips on parenting teens, check out Teenagers 101

Letting go

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How many of you out there have packed up your children and sent them off to college, or the military, or another state or country where they are starting a new life? My guess  is a lot, given the Facebook posts and Tweets I’ve been following for the past few months. Some have truly let go, dropping their kids off and waiting longingly for Thanksgiving. You’re currently in the middle of the longest stretch you’ve ever faced without seeing your kid, and it’s killing you. Some have let go, but only until next weekend. Your children are texting you, you’re still solving problems, and you’ve managed to feel homesick, even though you’re the one still at home.We all process our children’s growth and independence differently, and that’s as it should be. There’s no  one right way to help your kids leave the nest.

There’s a duck family in the lake behind my house. When the ducklings first hatched, the mama was relentless in her defense and protection of the little ones. She visibly stiffened as we neared, her eyes large and forbidding. Soon, her brood was swimming, and as we approached, she placed her body squarely between us and her ducklings but encouraged them to keep swimming. Now, she swims ahead of them, and at our appearance, she pauses, but only slightly. She can sense that her ducklings are bigger now, more equipped, more ready to defend themselves.

In the last few months, I’ve had to step away from my Mother Duck role completely, although I’ve been swimming ahead for a while now. My daughter, after traveling through Europe for a few months last year, decided to take an even deeper plunge into the unknown. In June, she left with a backpack and malaria pills to travel around the world. As I hugged her goodbye at the airport, I knew I wouldn’t see her for a year. Not a week, not until the next holiday, but a full year. That does something to a mother’s heart.

I don’t think I knew what conflicting emotions truly were until I saw my daughter beaming on the coast of Crete while I worried myself sick about the bombings and shootings in Europe. On the one hand, I was trepidatious, watching the news, following the violence, checking in with her via text every day. On the other hand, I felt indescribable joy for her as she discovered the beauty of Budapest and the hidden streets of Croatia.

Her experiences only became even more awe-inspiring when she arrived in Japan, which she described as a completely different world, in every way possible. She fell in love with the people, the culture, the rice balls, the Critter Cafes. She spent a month in Japan alone, savoring the atmosphere but realizing if she didn’t leave now, she never would. On she went to the Philippines where she became a certified diver and spent her days swimming with whale sharks and diving WW2 shipwrecks. Yesterday, she arrived in Cambodia for a month-long yoga retreat. She sent a video of a tribal priest blessing her and chanting a welcome while she smiled peacefully among this strange language and culture.

How can I deny her this? Why would I want to?

Parents, I know it’s hard to let your child go, but if you’re finding yourself questioning your decision to do so, ask yourself those same questions. Your children may not be traveling around the world, literally, but they’re exposing themselves to the world and enjoying their own form of self-discovery. How can you deny them that? And why would you want to?

 

Top 3 Tips for coping with stress

teen stressIt’s that time of year when the cries of teenagers everywhere can be heard ‘round the world. It’s college application time, well-into-school-and-absolutely-no-breaks-until-Christmas time, and “I’m up to my eyeballs in due dates” time. When kids are stressed, parents are stressed, and no one is happy. So what can you do to alleviate your kids’ anxiety? You can help, guide, suggest and even model good organization for your kids.

Teach your kids these skills today, and they will thank you for the rest of their lives:

1. There’s no way around it, something’s got to give. I can almost guarantee that your teens can drop at least one activity from their list that is a.} not that beneficial or important anyway, but that b.} takes up valuable time and adds unnecessary stress. Your kids need to decide for themselves what that is. When you pose this question to them, don’t be surprised if it takes them 30 seconds or less to answer. Teens know how they feel about their activities whether they verbalize them or not. They know what’s wasting their time, and they know what depletes their passion resources. They hate busy work. They hate pointless meetings. They’re just like us in that regard. So pose the question and step back and let them freely share the answer. Chances are, they’ll quickly identify their energy drainer. Be ready – you must be willing to hear it and let your child drop it, even if it’s a favorite activity of yours. If it’s not crucial to their future, an activity about which they are normally passionate, or something that is truly necessary for their growth and well-being, they should be allowed to drop it in the interest of life balance and stress reduction.  If you’re still hesitant about your child stopping piano lessons or SAT Prep, check out this article about the myriad ways stress hurts our bodies, minds, behaviors, and attitudes and ask yourself if that one hobby or class is worth it. http://www.stress.org/stress-effects/

 2. Kids know and understand everything they have going on in their lives, but they’re not great at figuring out what should take precedence. In fact, most would choose social media and friends over responsibilities any day of the week. They need parents to guide them and remind them, without nagging or taking over their calendar. The skill of prioritizing is so important to their lives that you would be negligent if you didn’t teach it to them. Think about the many times in your life when you’ve had to determine what is most crucial and then work to that end in order to keep your job, pay your bills, or maintain your sanity. You must teach this to your kids. Never expect that they will be able to figure this out on their own.

3. Help your kids by setting them up with a personal calendar where they can enter due dates, homework, activities and events. Teach them to review the calendar daily to determine what they can do today that will make tomorrow a little easier. Walk them through the importance of tackling big projects, college applications, and tests step-by-step, and by starting when the assignment is given, not the day before it’s due. Teach them that procrastination is dangerous, especially when entering adulthood, in that it adds additional and avoidable pressure and stress. Show them that a little forethought today can make an enormous difference to their futures.

Look for more tips like these in my book, Teenagers 101, found everywhere. And if your kids need personalized guidance, they can get it at Teenager Success 101.

Three tips for reducing teen stress  

teen stressIt’s that time of year when the cries of teenagers everywhere can be heard ‘round the world. It’s college application time, well-into-school-and-absolutely-no-breaks-until-Christmas time, and “I’m up to my eyeballs in due dates” time. When kids are stressed, parents are stressed, and no one is happy. So what can you do to alleviate your kids’ anxiety? You can help, guide, suggest and even model good organization for your kids.

Teach your kids these skills today, and they will thank you for the rest of their lives:

1. There’s no way around it, something’s got to give. I can almost guarantee that your teens can drop at least one activity from their list that is a.} not that beneficial or important anyway, but that b.} takes up valuable time and adds unnecessary stress. Your kids need to decide for themselves what that is. When you pose this question to them, don’t be surprised if it takes them 30 seconds or less to answer. Teens know how they feel about their activities whether they verbalize them or not. They know what’s wasting their time, and they know what depletes their passion resources. They hate busy work. They hate pointless meetings. They’re just like us in that regard. So pose the question and step back and let them freely share the answer. Chances are, they’ll quickly identify their energy drainer. Be ready – you must be willing to hear it and let your child drop it, even if it’s a favorite activity of yours. If it’s not crucial to their future, an activity about which they are normally passionate, or something that is truly necessary for their growth and well-being, they should be allowed to drop it in the interest of life balance and stress reduction.  If you’re still hesitant about your child stopping piano lessons or SAT Prep, check out this article about the myriad ways stress hurts our bodies, minds, behaviors, and attitudes and ask yourself if that one hobby or class is worth it. http://www.stress.org/stress-effects/

 2. Kids know and understand everything they have going on in their lives, but they’re not great at figuring out what should take precedence. In fact, most would choose social media and friends over responsibilities any day of the week. They need parents to guide them and remind them, without nagging or taking over their calendar. The skill of prioritizing is so important to their lives that you would be negligent if you didn’t teach it to them. Think about the many times in your life when you’ve had to determine what is most crucial and then work to that end in order to keep your job, pay your bills, or maintain your sanity. You must teach this to your kids. Never expect that they will be able to figure this out on their own.

3. Help your kids by setting them up with a personal calendar where they can enter due dates, homework, activities and events. Teach them to review the calendar daily to determine what they can do today that will make tomorrow a little easier. Walk them through the importance of tackling big projects, college applications, and tests step-by-step, and by starting when the assignment is given, not the day before it’s due. Teach them that procrastination is dangerous, especially when entering adulthood, in that it adds additional and avoidable pressure and stress. Show them that a little forethought today can make an enormous difference to their futures.

Look for more tips like these in my book, Teenagers 101, found everywhere. And if your kids need personalized guidance, they can get it at Teenager Success 101.

When schools fail your kids

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You probably read this title and said aloud, “Oh, let me count the ways.” If you have kids in school, you know that schools sometimes fail. It’s inevitable. You can’t please everyone all the time, and in the case of schools, you can’t please everyone, ever.

As a longtime educator, now moved on to a new venture, you might expect me to lament the inadequacies of the school systems across the nation, but you won’t hear me bash them, ever.

The best, most caring, hardest working people I’ve ever encountered are teachers. If you’re not one, I can’t explain them to you and do them justice. All I can tell you is that teachers think differently, act differently, and live differently, all to serve strangers’ kids and play an integral part in giving them a future. Teachers are heroes, not the kind who run into burning buildings, but the kind who get burned every day just trying to save other people’s kids.

Yet, our schools are failing our kids, and they can’t help themselves. There are no perfect schools; there are only schools that serve a population, that present a cornucopia of lessons – academic, life, and otherwise – and hope for the best. Schools can’t control for all the variables, for the hungry kids, for the kids who are exhausted from working 25 hours a week, for the disinterested parents, for the over-interested parents, for the death, the divorce, or the drugs.

Schools only have so many resources, and if you want to maximize them, you’ve got your work cut out for you. First, see each teacher individually, learn that teacher’s style and expectations, and give that teacher what he or she wants, the way they want it. Second, appeal to the counselor (the one who has 400 students on her roster) and get her attention long enough to secure some career advice. Third, compete with everyone else in the nation taking standardized tests while wading through the various SAT-Prep programs out there trying to decide if any of them are worth it. Next, network with everyone you know and appeal to them to talk to your kids, share their careers, try to light a fire. The sheer exhaustion just thinking about the steps you must take to help your kids be successful within the school system is staggering. Add sports, clubs, care of siblings, church, and some sort of social life, and it’s no wonder parents walk around in a daze through most of their kids’ school years.

Having just left a full-time teaching career and having witnessed more stress being visited on middle and high school kids than I’ve seen in my entire career, I’ve decided to do something about it. I’ve created a one-stop shop for parents and their kids, grades 6-12, so they no longer have to go to 10 different people to get the help they need to be successful. My new venture, Teenager Success 101, brings the experts to you, wherever you live, via personal, one-on-one instruction. My goal is to reduce the stress in both parents’ and kids’ lives by lending a guiding hand on their journey through middle school, high school, and beyond. Whatever they need – tutors, test prep, college admittance support, stress management, business contacts – they can find it here, just an email or phone call away.

I’d love to help make up for what is lacking in today’s overcrowded, overstimulated, overly distracting  schools. If you want your kids to be the first to receive a personalized plan for success and all the tools and support they need to get there, just go to www.teenagersuccess101.com and then sit back and take a breath. Life is about to get a whole lot easier.

Parents: How back to school can change your life

Back to school parentsBack to school isn’t just for kids and school supply stores. As parents, you’re well aware that this
time of year affects you almost as much as it affects your kids. They may be returning to classrooms, homework, and friends, but you’re also returning to the parents-of-schoolkids life. Who says kids are the only ones who deserve coping skills for this transition? You do too!

So here are 4 tips – just for parents – for starting the school year off right:

  1. Set the right tone from the beginning, and be consistent! School should not equal drudgery, fear, or anxiety. How you view school, and how you convey that view to your kids, profoundly affects their feelings about learning, their teachers, and their purpose. Always speak of school as an exciting world of opportunities. Help kids see their teachers as allies who are there to help them prepare for their futures. Don’t make statements that imply that the fun is about to end as school starts. Think about it, school is where kids spend the vast majority of their time. Why would you want to paint a negative picture of their day?
  2. Carve out a special time and place each day for study, review of the day’s learning, and     reflection. Never let your children tell you they have no homework or nothing to do. Teach your kids that daily review of notes and quiet time to absorb them is crucial to learning. Cramming may get them a decent score on a test, but it won’t lead to true understanding. Always emphasize that learning is way more important than test scores. The irony is that if you emphasize learning, the test scores will follow. Even without review, quiet reflection is good for everyone and gives your kids a chance to decompress.
  3. Insist that there’s more to life than academics. If you want your kids to enjoy their school years, those years have to be comprised of more than just classes and homework. Make sure your kids have time for recreation, physical activity, and ways to use their brains outside of traditional learning. Whether it’s through chess, art, theater, music, sports, or clubs, kids need to learn the importance of a balanced life. Some of us live our entire lives without grasping that elusive concept, and we pay the price with health problems and depression. If they learn it when they’re young, they’re much more likely to incorporate it into their lives.
  4.  This is the tough one: Model these lessons in your own life. Yes, you have homework the minute school starts, beyond carpooling, and well, helping with homework. Your job is to show your kids that the same expectations you have for them also apply to you. That means you should approach your job with positivity and a dedication to lifelong learning. It means that you should have your own time each day for quiet reflection, review, and preparation. It means that you should model balance in your own life by seeking out physical activities, friends, and interests and hobbies. We’ve all figured out by now that kids are much more likely to mimic what we do rather than what we say. So your job, parents, is to walk the walk.

Just as you try to show your kids what good morals and ethics look like, you need to teach them what being a good student looks like. They need to see your actions back up your words, so consider this new school year a new beginning for you as well. Find the joy in your job, make time in your day for quiet reflection, and pursue at least one new interest that takes you out of your work routine. If you make only those three changes, your life will change for the better, and not only you, but your kids, will have a fantastic new school year!

For everything you need to know about having a great school year, check out Teenagers 101.