Helping your kids make the most of summer

The weather is warming, trees are shedding pear blossoms, and school (and all those busses clogging the streets) will soon come screeching to a halt. While teachers and students are counting down the days to their summer respite, parents are staring at the calendar wondering how the heck they’re going to keep their kids busy.

It’s a good question. Most teens are too young to work but too old for summer camps. Too many will simply get into trouble, especially if left alone all day with nothing to do. Others will sleep and sleep, Netflix binge, then sleep some more. That’s why all the experts recommend having a plan for your kids that yes, includes rest and fun, but also engages the mind and body and keeps kids active during their two-month break from school.

Below are some suggestions to help you get started on a summer break plan that will provide memorable experiences for your kids and peace of mind for you.

  1. Pre-College Summer Programs – In recent years, these “tastes of college” have tripled in number and become quite popular with 9th-12th With a wide range of offerings, universities across the U.S. provide programs for introducing students to careers or delving into an area of interest. It’s an opportunity to meet professors and admissions counselors, live in a dorm, and be around a whole new group of kids that just may become lifelong friends. And it’s a great resume builder!
  2. Community service – Youth who volunteer just one hour or more a week are 50% less likely to abuse alcohol and cigarettes, become pregnant, or engage in other destructive behavior. As if that weren’t a good enough reason, volunteering as a child greatly increases the likelihood of growing into an adult who volunteers. Working with those less fortunate naturally develops gratitude, work ethic, leadership, and an understanding of differences crucial to developing tolerance and erasing judgmental attitudes. Whether local or international, mission work and community service can provide a life-changing summer experience for kids.
  3. Internships – The federal government may not endorse child employment, but there is much to be said for non-paid internships and job shadowing. Middle and early high school kids are just starting to think about interests they may parlay into careers, but their understanding borders on fantasy-level. To give them a grounded, realistic view of what a veterinarian, for example, does every day, let them shadow a vet. Give them an opportunity to ask questions of the very people who are living out their dream. Whether they discover that their dream could become a reality, or they realize that the reality is nothing like they had dreamed, it is a win-win. Before you spend tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, give your kids an opportunity to explore the reality of their future degree.
  4. Academic advancement or catch-up – Summer is the perfect time to take courses outside of the normal class load. These can be reinforcement courses in areas of weakness, electives students wish to “get out of the way,” or next-level classes that help them get a jump on the competition. They may be offered through your local high school, community college, or online – just be sure that the course will transfer to high school or college credit. Summer is also a great time to take an SAT or ACT Prep course, to work on college applications, and to write college essays. Encourage your kids to complete these now, when they are not bogged down with homework and tests.
  5. Reading – I taught for a long time, and I know how kids can balk at the thought of reading. But one thing I discovered is that there is something for everyone. Non-readers just haven’t found their something yet. Or, they’ve been forced to read books they hate, so they’ve been conditioned to hate reading. Work to undo this. Reading can be a lifelong pleasure that opens new worlds, explores new possibilities, and inspires new ways of thinking. Every kid should have a library card. This is their free pass to discover what they like, to “try out” different genres and authors. Once they’ve found their literary sweet spot, they can customize it to their heart’s content. Some will prefer books on tape, others will go the e-reader route, and still others will love the feel of a book in their hands. And keep in mind that reading can take many forms: Maybe they prefer a magazine, Internet articles, or the Sunday paper. No matter what avenue they choose, they should be informed, and they should develop an appreciation for language and what it can convey.

Continuing to grow throughout the summer months is important, but so are fun and relaxation. Try to create a balance for your kids so that summer is neither all work nor all play. You will feel the positive effects in your home, and you won’t be nearly as eager to send them back to school come August.

Staying close when loved ones are far away

The most popular piece I’ve ever written was an article for Huffington Post called When Your Kid Leaves Home for Good. Although I wrote it years ago, it pops up intermittently, resurrected by the mysteries of the Internet, and when it does, I invariably get emails from people around the world wanting to share their sadness about their child leaving home. Obviously, it’s a topic with widespread application and deep emotional appeal. Everyone wants to know – How can I stay close to my kids when they’re no longer living under my roof?

The good news is that I’ve experienced this, first as the child and now as the parent, and I’m here to tell you it can be done successfully and very pleasantly. I find that my relationships with my adult children are better than they’ve ever been, and although my parents live far away, they maintain close relationships with their children and their grandchildren.

Not only that, but adult relationships with your children are twice as nice because you no longer have to parent them as strenuously as you did when they were growing  up. Sure, you’ll always be a parent, but now you can be a friend too. That’s a beautiful thing. Miles really don’t matter, thanks to technology and transportation. The logistics will take care of themselves; your focus should be on the relationship.

Below are five tips for fostering strong bonds among family members, the kind that aren’t strained by distance.

  1. Take advantage of technology. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but kids today aren’t big on talking on the phone. They like to text, send images and gifs, and even engage in conversations almost entirely comprised of emojis. Embrace this, even if you don’t understand it. Grandma who texts talks to my kids WAY more than Grandma who insists on phone calls. Which grandma do you want to be?
  2. Learn from your kids. Trust me, they have a lot to teach you. When you get the opportunity to spend time with them, or you actually do talk to them on the phone, ask them about the latest lingo and what it means. Get them to show you features on your phone you never knew existed. Ask them about their favorite shows on Netflix. Everyone loves to be valued and to feel that they have something to offer. When you become the students and let them be the teachers, you show them respect by welcoming them into the adult world with you.
  3. Honor family traditions. Kids rely on these and when they come home, it should feel like the home they remember. Their favorite meal, a family movie, or a neighborhood walk provide comfort and create a safe haven for young adults for whom so much is new and different. Grandparents should establish their own traditions, such as playing cards or building puzzles with the grandkids. Each visit will then strengthen the ties among extended family members.
  4. Love their friends. Young people’s peers are some of the most influential people in their lives. As you’ve probably discovered, what their friends think is frequently more important than what you think. Knowing that, make an effort to learn the names of your kids’ friends, to know something about them, and to get along with them. I love my kids’ friends. When I see them, I genuinely enjoy talking to them, and my kids know this. As a result, I’m much more likely to be invited along. Likewise, they are much more likely to visit my home and be perfectly comfortable there. Boyfriends and girlfriends are even more important. Make them feel like part of the family, and you’ll see much more of your kids.
  5. Be there, no matter what. Set the precedent early on that it doesn’t matter how far away anyone is. You can always be there with emotional support, encouraging texts, Facetime, and phone calls. It’s amazing how strong a relationship can be between people who only see each other a couple times a year. It’s all about being there in other ways, always letting the other person know you are thinking about them. Your kids will set the tone for how often they want to talk or text. Follow their lead. Don’t be a pest and don’t drop off the planet. Find what works for everyone and honor it.

As we begin a new year, think about the ways you can engage with your kids or grandkids that will speak to them where they are. Once you relinquish the need to be in charge and allow your kids to grow into the adults you always wanted them to be, you will be astounded by how much you genuinely like them.

Parenting to your child’s love language

“I don’t understand it. I’ve raised both my kids the same way, and they’ve turned out completely different!” I’ve heard this exasperated claim many times. Have you said it yourself?

I remember reading all the parenting books and columns I could get my hands on while raising my son and daughter. I wanted to understand why I got one result when I applied a parenting principle to my son and a completely different result with my daughter. After all, they were raised in the same household, same parents, same rules, same religious foundation, same everything. What was I missing?

One very big factor: They are two entirely different people. Their personalities, perspectives, choices, passions, strengths, weaknesses – all different. Yet I was treating them the same, thinking “same” was a synonym for “fair.” It isn’t.

Being fair is being judicious, with consistent rules and consequences. Your son shouldn’t get to stay out later than your daughter. Your daughter shouldn’t do more chores than your son. And discipline for one shouldn’t be more extreme than the other.

But with different personalities, values and interests, your children shouldn’t be treated the same, any more than you treat all your friends or family members the exact same way. As adults, we’ve recognized that other adults respond differently to statements, actions, and expressions of love. We adapt our behavior and expectations accordingly.

Look at marriage. Is your spouse just like you? I’ve been married almost 31 years and I’m here to tell you, my husband and I are very different people. Yet we cohabitate peacefully, resolve differences quickly, and enjoy each other’s company. And we have a deep love for one another that hasn’t faded.

But how does that translate to our relationship to our children? Well, think about the Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman’s philosophy about how to relate to those who aren’t like us. He says that everyone has a Love Language, a way that they are most receptive to love, leading to cooperation and returned affection. Just as adults have love languages, children do too. And knowing their love language is tantamount to some of the best parenting principles out there.

The five Love Languages – Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gift Giving, and Acts of Service – represent how a person sees and feels love. For children of all ages, it looks like this

  1. Physical Touch – Hugs and kisses, sitting in close proximity, wrestling, back scratches, placing your hand on your child’s when talking, high-fiving, and snuggling all help these kids feel your love. While these same actions with another child can cause discomfort or embarrassment, the child who craves physical touch will count on it as a way to view your love.
  2. Words of Affirmation – You will know this is your child’s love language when their motivation and satisfaction grow as a result of verbal praise and recognition. These kids need to hear “I love you” and need you to tell them you’re proud of them. But be careful! They will quickly recognize false praise, as they are attuned to words and tone. Likewise, negative words cut to the core. So be sincere in your dialog and solve disputes through calm discussion, and they will respond!
  3. Quality Time – While all of us need human interaction and crave acceptance from others, kids who fall in this category base their view of relationships primarily on the amount and quality of time you spend with them. As you can imagine, these kids struggle when the two most important people in their lives are constantly at work or busy with other endeavors. It’s not that you need to be with them all the time, it’s that when you are, it needs to be about them, not about your phone, other people, or any other distractions. When they speak, look them directly in the eyes and give them your full attention. Make them feel that when you’re together, it’s only about the two of you.
  4. Giving gifts – These kids are thoughtful. It brings them joy to make others happy through gift giving. They put time and effort into their gifts because to them, giving to others is a true sign of love. In return, they gauge others’ love for them by the same measure. But don’t mistake expensive for valuable. What they are looking for is an understanding of who they are, what they like, and what brings them happiness. This can include homemade gifts, cookies baked just for them, or a handwritten card expressing your pride in their accomplishment.
  5. Acts of Service – No, these children do not expect you to be their servant, but they will feel the most loved when you serve them in a different way. Hosting their friends at your house; doing something when they ask you to do it, not in your own time; and making them feel valued by treating them respectfully, are all ways you can perform acts of service. Again, price is not a factor here. Stopping for a milkshake just because your daughter craves one is a small act that will bring big love rewards.

Figuring out who your children are and what makes them tick is the first step in knowing how to speak to them in the language that they appreciate. When that happens, the fact that your children are different will be a blessing rather than a curse.

Letting kids stumble

The other day I was perusing Facebook and came across a video of a newly born giraffe attempting to take his first steps. His mother stood above him and watched as he repeatedly teetered on wobbly legs only to fall sideways, backwards, and even flat on his face. Each time, he lay on the ground, catching his breath, and his mother watched and waited. Occasionally she gave him an encouraging lick or a nudge of her head as a show of support, but it was obvious this was something the baby giraffe needed to learn through trial, error, and perseverance. Eventually he did, and if it’s possible for an animal to beam with pride, he did that as well. He happily experimented with his new legs and became more brave and confident with each step. I couldn’t help but root for the little guy and share in his success and joy.

As someone who works with kids and parents, I naturally made the connection between giraffe parenting and human parenting. How many of us are willing to stand and watch while our children figure things out on their own, struggle, fail, and keep trying until they succeed? Are we more inclined to pave the path for our children and try to remove obstacles? Do we jump in before they fail? Do we constantly worry about protecting their self-esteem and warding off hurts and frustrations?

Twenty years ago we saw a developing trend toward helicopter parenting that blew up into a form of overprotectiveness which, through the benefit of hindsight, we now realize truly harmed kids. This group, now young adults, has few coping skills and cannot handle frustrations and roadblocks, thus leading to a higher number of suicides and much higher rates of anxiety and depression. Because we didn’t want our children to face all the small failures that are part of growth, we created a generation of young people who can’t handle failure at all. We didn’t help them; we massively crippled them.

Parents today are seeing the damage caused from carrying our children rather than forcing them to walk on their own. We are seeing a return to “old school parenting,” where kids join sports teams and take music lessons and plug away at it until they get it right. They practice, put in sweat equity, enjoy small successes that build their self-esteem and small failures that build their character, and guess what? They’re growing, maturing, and learning to stand on their own two feet.

As we start a new school year, I encourage you to take this proven philosophy and apply it to your children’s learning. As I told my kids when they were growing up, they had one job and that job was school. Make your kids responsible for their own job, and that includes keeping an agenda, putting effort into homework and turning it in on time, studying for tests and quizzes, and taking any concerns or questions they may have to the teacher. Your job is to be there, watching and encouraging, but not interfering. Your job is to teach them personal responsibility and independence. If they make mistakes – and they will – they must face the consequences in order to learn and do better the next time.

Whatever you do, don’t make excuses for children’s lack of responsibility and don’t ask teachers to continually give them another chance. If this means they earned a zero, then help them by discussing their options and how they might avoid any zeroes in the future. If it means they failed a test, help them determine if it was from lack of understanding or lack of effort. Provide a support system for the former and consequences for the latter. But don’t try to get a retake or argue that your child deserves a do over. This is where healthy support becomes unhealthy interference, and at this point, you are harming rather than helping your child.

If you deprive kids of consequences, you are only crippling them. Better to let them stumble today than to cripple them for a lifetime.

How to empower your kids against bullies

Bullies have been around for as long as we can remember, but their prominence in the news is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Throwing a punch and calling a name has been replaced with a much more sophisticated form of torture, one that is relentless and sometimes drives its victims to suicide.

Bullycide is the new term created to encompass the many children and teens who have committed suicide as a way to escape bullying. The fact that we have coined this term speaks volumes about where we are as a society and how important it is for parents to be aware of this danger. Bullying has changed quite a bit since we were kids, and the results can be devastating.

No longer is bullying confined to isolated spaces and incidents. The days of stealing lunch money or shoving someone into a locker have passed and students can no longer look forward to the end of the school day to escape their tormentors. Home is no longer the sanctuary it used to be, as social media and the Internet infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Now, when a student faces embarrassment, it is broadcast to the world and relived over and over again.

As with other forms of abuse, the victims hesitate to tell anyone what they are facing or feeling. Only 40% of bullying victims tell anyone or seek help, which means as parents, you need to be aware of the signs that something isn’t right with your kids. Below are some pointers for recognizing signs of bullying and dealing with them before they push your kids to hopelessness.

  1.  Do NOT respect your kids’ “privacy” on social media. The very idea of social media being private is absurd. Don’t let your kids guilt you into feeling that an Instagram account is like a diary. The two have nothing in common. A diary is a place where one writes their private feelings, whereas social media, well, is social. Whatever is out there is out there for public consumption, and you, dear parents, are the public. If everyone else can see it, you should be seeing it.
  2. Note changes in your child’s behavior and day-to-day habits. Look particularly for changes in eating (either not eating or bingeing) and sleeping (too much sleeping is a sign of depression, too little is a sign of stress). Are grades suddenly dropping? Does your child seem to lack confidence and have a great deal of self-doubt? Is your child avoiding social situations that she once enjoyed? All of these signs are potential red flags that something or someone is affecting your child negatively. Pay attention and don’t ignore these signs.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open. Ask questions and listen. Inquire about specific friends. Note your child’s change of behavior and discuss it with them. Know and talk to your child’s friends to see if there is something you should know. Be careful to ask with concern but not paranoia. Friends will stay tight-lipped when they fear betraying a friend’s trust, but if you ask with clear concern and love, good friends will share in an effort to help.
  4. Watch for signs that your child could be a bully. These include aggression, getting into trouble at school, hanging around with kids who bully, an excessive focus on self-image, and a high level of competitiveness. If your child is quick to anger and his first reaction involves hurting others in some way, whether physical or emotional, he may be a bully. If he fails to take responsibility for his actions and is always looking to blame others when he is in trouble, you will want to keep a very close eye on his interactions with his peers.
  5. Remember that today’s bullying is oftentimes anonymous. This makes it even worse for the victims, as they have no idea who is going after them on social media and what this person has against them. Psychologically, it’s devastating. The victim begins to question his relationships; he wonders if he can ever trust his friends. Without a clear person or reason behind the bullying, he is left to agonize over the who and why. As parents, you can step in and utilize the resources you have – the school, the police, anti-bullying organizations – to identify online predators and put a stop to their bullying.
  6. Work constantly to help your children develop self-respect and confidence. We’ve all dealt with mean people who set out to hurt us. Whether or not we become a victim, however, is largely up to us. As parents, teach your kids their worth so that when someone else questions it, they know exactly who they are and how unimportant that person’s opinion is. Bullies tend to prey on the vulnerable, so do everything you can to strengthen your kids and let them know that their worth comes from within. When they refuse to allow others to diminish their worth, they will have stopped the bullies in their tracks.

Helping kids cope with tragedy

I sit here reading yet another story about a tragic school shooting, one where young lives were taken well before their time and other young lives must continue with shadows of the tragedy plaguing them for decades to come. It’s a depressing reality that our kids are in danger, not just from drugs, unprotected sex, and recklessness, but from other kids with guns.

It’s also a sad reality that kids are moved through our school systems with obvious social and mental issues and that these same kids have access to guns. They see other school shootings and envision them as glorified, thereby feeding their need for notoriety. The cycle continues, and our children are the victims.

Perhaps the saddest reality of all is that the teenage years have just become a whole lot harder. While uncomfortable parent-teen conversations have been around since Mike from the Brady Bunch had to explain the birds and the bees, how in the world do we talk to our children about the violence that has permeated what was once a safe place?

  1. We can begin by getting ourselves straight first. If we approach our children with fear and anxiety, we will build fear and anxiety within them. Talk to your spouse and your friends about the madness, vent your fears and frustrations, then pull it together for your kids. They will take their cue from you. They will be fearful of those things for which you have instilled fear. So present a calm demeanor that will leave the lines of communication open so you can…
  2. Just listen. You may prompt your children by asking if their friends or teachers are talking about the shootings, and then let them share their perceptions. Based on their tone, their level of anxiety, and their perspective, you can then determine how to respond. If your teens seem especially agitated, help them to put their fear into perspective. In reality,  the odds of a school shooting are still small and school still remains a safe haven for the vast majority of students in America. Help your kids see that while these events comprise the headlines for every news media outlet out there, statistically speaking, they are not something to fear on a daily basis.
  3. In listening to your kids, you’ll probably notice that most put themselves in the position of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They imagine what they would do in a similar position. Would they bravely stand up and put their life on the line for their peers? Would they run? Would they hide? Would they try to wrestle the gun from the shooter? It is natural for kids to imagine themselves in the situation and sometimes take on the persona of the hero. So ask them: What do you think you would do? Listen carefully to their response. Then talk them through their options, the smart and best ways to respond in emergency situations. Use these tragedies as an opportunity to educate and plan.

It’s hard to find something positive in such a horrible tragedy as a school shooting.  Perhaps one constructive outcome to come out of these nightmares is that they force us to self-reflect, as a nation, as a public school system, and as parents. Are we doing enough to keep our kids safe? What can we do to end these tragedies?

 

Young love is indeed real

It is the month of romance and love and many will celebrate with fancy dinners, roses, and chocolates. If you’re like me, you’ll treat Valentines Day like any other day except that you’ll make a point of staying home to avoid the mad restaurant rush, the pink and red balloons, and the inflated prices on everything. It’s not that I’ve lost that lovin feeling; it’s just that after 30 years of marriage, being told when to be romantic just doesn’t work for me anymore.

If you have teenagers, however, especially teenagers who have a boyfriend or girlfriend, Valentines Day is anything but old hat. Teens look toward this day with either dread or hopes reaching fantasy level, depending on their relationship status. Valentines Day, when you’re a teenager in love, is a statement to the world and validation so many of them need that someone has chosen to love them, that they are the lucky ones.

Therefore, as parents, you shouldn’t minimize or tease them about their relationships. Nor should you tell them they are incapable of being truly in love, no matter how much you believe that, and no matter how many personal experiences you can share. Have you ever noticed your reaction when someone forewarns you based on their experience? Your initial reaction, if you’re like most humans, is to think to yourself, Well, that was their experience. Mine is different. We always think we’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Teenagers, especially, without the benefit of fully developed frontal lobes that allow them to see the whole picture or fully understand the consequences of their actions, generally dive in, head first. Impulsivity and recklessness are hallmarks of the teenage world. The same applies to romance. In their minds, your story is not their story. You can’t possibly understand the level of their connection with their boyfriend/girlfriend. They are in love. It’s real.

They know it’s real because they feel the extreme emotions that come with love. They feel hurt, they feel joy, they feel that wonderful sense of togetherness. Their hormones are on fire, clouding their judgment. They are experiencing – in real life – everything they have seen on the movie screen or read about in books. They are giddy with love.

So imagine what it does to them, and to their feelings about you, when you dismiss all of this by telling them they can’t possibly be in love. They don’t know what love is, you tell them. They’re too young to love. Imagine how condescending that must sound to them. And imagine how likely they’ll be to talk to you about matters of love again.

It is extremely important to your parent-child relationship that you acknowledge your teen’s feelings and understand they are very real. You don’t have to encourage teen love, but when your child finds it, or thinks he finds it, you should listen. Try to be happy he’s happy. Ask questions such as What do you like about her? What do you enjoy doing together? What makes her different from other girls?

Then sit back and listen to what your child tells you not only about this person he’s drawn to, but about himself, what he’s looking for, and what makes him happy. Don’t judge and don’t ask a hundred questions about the girlfriend’s family, grades, and interests. And whatever you do, don’t smirk and tell him he is too young to be in a relationship or to love someone. It’s too late for that by the time you find out about it. He’s already in it and he won’t willingly leave it.

It’s true that if parents attempt to break up a young couple, they usually succeed in driving the couple closer together. It’s the whole Romeo and Juliet thing. So instead, stay informed by keeping your relationship with your kids solid and the lines of communication open. Be respectful of your kids’ feelings and decisions, and they will come to you on their own for advice and counsel.

And remember, “real” is relative. Love is as real as it gets in the teenage mind, so be patient, understanding, and supportive as your teens navigate the rocky road of romance.

For more advice about parenting teens, check out Teenagers 101.