The best gifts you can give your kids

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

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

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.

Yes, you are an inspiration

Recently, I packed up my office at school to come home for the summer. I had collected cards and notes from students during the course of the year – thank you notes, Thanksgiving cards, and goodbye missives written by those same teenagers we all accuse of being self-centered. They’re not. Okay, sometimes they are. But they are also completely selfless when it comes to expressing their genuine gratitude. The two drawers in my nightstand contain enough evidence of teenage sweetness to dispel any rumors you may have heard of their apathy. They care, very much, especially about people who care about them.

As I gathered each note, I re-read it,  first with smiles, and then increasingly with awe. I noticed for the first time a pattern among the letters in a phrase I never expected to hear about myself: “You inspire me.” Trust me, I’m not telling you this to boast or brag. Quite the opposite, actually. This was an incredibly humbling experience for me. To be considered an inspiration to another human being – to several of them – is, as they used to say in the 70’s, heavy, man. When I think of inspirational people, I tend to think of Mother Theresa, Olympic athletes, and soldiers. Certainly not myself.

But when I really think about who has inspired me, personally, my single grandmother raising my mom on her own comes to mind. Then my mom. Then some amazing mentors I’ve had over the years. I’m not sure that any of them know they’ve inspired me, but they absolutely have. They have inspired me to work hard, persevere, be independent, think for myself, and never carry a grudge.

As parents, you inspire your children. They may never tell you that, so I’m doing it for them. I had coffee with a young man today who would impress the socks off of you, and guess what – his parents have played a primary role in the man he is becoming. They’ve inspired him to communicate in healthy ways, to help those in need, and to know when to let go. He knows and respects their bottom line, and there’s not a doubt in my mind he will go on to inspire his own children one day.

So what can you do specifically to make a lasting impact on your kids? Try the following:

  1. Be who you say you are. Teach your kids that authenticity is crucial to trust and and respect.
  2. Live out your faith. Teach your kids that prayer, gratitude, and treating others as you would be treated are basic tenets of your life.
  3. Give your kids – and everyone else in your life – the benefit of the doubt. Don’t expect them to mess up. Expect them to be amazing and then raise them to do just that.
  4. Forgive those who have wronged you. Pick yourself up and move on. You won’t inspire anyone by holding onto bitterness and becoming a victim.
  5. Always strive to be better. Set the example for your kids of lifelong learning, pursuit of mastery, and giving your all to a task.
  6. Respect yourself. There’s no better way to model high standards and healthy relationships.
  7. Be confident. If you know who you are, play to your strengths, and worry less about what others think, your kids will be much more likely to develop that same confidence.
  8. Believe in your kids’ dreams. Be realistic, but let them know that you respect and support their dreams, especially when their dreams differ from yours. They need to know that their future is their own.
  9. Have a sense of humor. When you can laugh at yourself, they learn not to take themselves and their problems so seriously. Humor puts everything in perspective.
  10. Give them the security they need to fly. It seems paradoxical, but when they know you’re always there for them, that’s when they truly find their freedom.

Inspire your kids today. Greatness doesn’t mean fame and fortune. It means being an inspiration to others.

Family survival tips for spring break

someone holding a blank blackboard at the beach with the sentence spring break written in it

What’s not to like about Spring Break? It’s a much needed respite from school; the beginning of a fresh, new season; and an opportunity to spend lots of time together as a family. And there’s the rub. Sometimes it doesn’t take long for lots of time to turn into too much time. Teens can be irritable, inflexible, moody, and unreasonable in their expectations. Seven full days of these emotions can stretch the patience of even the most saintly parents, so here are seven tips to get you through Spring Break with a smile on your face.

  1. Expect your kids to sleep in; keep the schedule flexible. Most teens sleep longer than we do, and this isn’t due to laziness. According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens need 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep per night to function best, a little more than the adult recommendation of 7 to 9 hours. Just as we like to catch up on our sleep during vacation, teens do too, especially if they are highly academically motivated or involved in sports and activities that consume most of their days. You may be impatient waiting for them to start their day, but allowing them to wake at their leisure will make for better attitudes and more appreciative teens who are more likely to go along with your plans.
  1. Remember that it’s the little things that make memories. My son is 23 years old now, but he still talks about that one time in high school when we played miniature golf. Why? Because the winner got to choose any dessert he wanted as a prize, and his competitive nature brought him that win, and, as I recall, a tub of Snickers ice cream. Our family has taken major trips and spent a lot of money on activities, but this putt-putt adventure cost about 20 bucks, and it’s a day he remembers fondly. Sometimes the most priceless packages are wrapped in the smallest boxes.
  1. Proceed with caution when it comes to teen Spring Break trips. I understand that teens want to travel and “escape the real world” for just a bit, but if it’s financially feasible, I urge you to do this as a family, versus sending them off with other teens. High schoolers are still quite naïve to the ways of the world and even the best of them can find themselves in uncomfortable or unsafe situations when they are away from home without adult supervision. While the vast majority of hotels will not rent to children under 18 without at least one adult present, remember that many teens have slightly older brothers and sisters who would qualify for this age limit. High school kids staying with college-age kids at a Spring Break destination can be a recipe for disaster, and I encourage you to avoid this.
  1. Let your kids enjoy balanced, unhurried days. Educators and child psychologists are seeing more stressed-out kids than ever before, so it’s important that kids have this chance to relax and do what they love to do. Give them a chance to sit around in their PJs and surf the net, but also try to plan a unique activity into each day that gives them something to look forward to. This can be anything from a movie to an evening at an arcade to visiting family across the miles. The key is to get them out of the house and moving, even if it’s only for a couple hours each day.
  1. Make your home a comfortable place to be, for both them and their friends. Encourage your kids to invite their friends to the house, and always let these friends know that you like them and they are welcome. My daughter and her friends spent hours in our kitchen baking and talking, then sharing their sweets with the family. Our son and his friends spent entire evenings around the fire pit in the backyard, just shooting the breeze, playing guitar, and laughing. I always knew who my kids’ friends were, and I always knew what they were doing. There’s definitely something to be said for being the host house. It may cost you in groceries, but the trade-off is well worth it.
  1. Find one go-to activity that your family enjoys doing together. Never underestimate the power of tradition. It creates comfort, familiarity and cohesiveness within a family. Kids may never say it, but every time you come together to resume a task, continue a game, or recreate a memory, you solidify the family bond. For some families, it’s working a 1,000-piece puzzle. For others, it’s playing pool, cards, or a board game. For some, it’s Wednesday Sandwich Night or breakfast for dinner. There’s nothing more beautiful than turning a fun family activity into a treasured tradition. During Spring Break, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, spend time resurrecting special moments.

7. Take some time to remind your kids to finish the school year strong. This is a tough stretch     for kids. They get a taste of summer freedom this week, but tired as they are of school, they             must return for a few final months. Encourage your kids to use these break days to rejuvenate         and refresh so they can do their best work during this end-of-year push. Kids should be                     prepping for final exams, AP exams, and for some, SAT and ACT, so a little parental                           encouragement is crucial at this time.

No matter what you decide to do with your kids, know that just spending time together is the absolute best goal to have. Here’s to a relaxing and peaceful Spring Break 2016!

For more ideas about bringing your family closer together, check out Teenagers 101. 

 

How the newest parenting trends are hurting your kids

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of blog titles that have caught my eye (isn’t that the point?) but have disturbed me as a parent and as a human being in general. In the past few months, I’ve seen variations of the following titles: “I swear in front of my kids and I’m F*ing proud of it!” “This mom didn’t watch her kids at the playground and that’s awesome!” and “I told my kid he’s a failure and I don’t care that he cried.” Okay, I might have made that last one up. But still.

I get that we writers and bloggers and journalists draw more attention to our writing when we sensationalize our headlines, but in these cases, the headlines weren’t just bait. They accurately reflected the stories that followed, which is intriguing, to say the least. These sentiments speak to a trend in parenting of indulging kids less and moving away from a kid-centered focus, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But it’s disheartening to see today’s parents suffer from the very mistake they’re attempting to avoid – parenting in extremes.

Hear me out. For the past 20 or so years, we have watched parents, en masse, embrace a whole new philosophy of parenting. Gone are the days of spanking, yelling, and Because I Said So. We criticized corporal punishment for sending the message that a violent act, spanking, could effectively teach a life lesson. Instead, we held discussions with our children, we reasoned with them, we explained our rules – over and over – as many times as our kids demanded it. We did it all with the best of intentions, using Time-Out as a disciplining method, giving stars and trophies to everyone who participated, and doing everything in our power to protect our children’s increasingly fragile self-esteem.

In a nutshell, we got carried away. We involved ourselves in every aspect of our children’s lives, catching them before they fell, preventing failure, and calling out other adults who attempted to hold our kids accountable for their actions (teachers, coaches, cub scout leaders, etc., etc.). “Helicopter parent” joined our daily lexicon. Kids became entitled. Good teachers left the profession, throwing up their hands and fearing for the next generation. Corporations began training their managers in how to hire and work with graduates who expected six-figures and two-hour lunches, and who, by the way, couldn’t take an ounce of criticism.

And now, for the first time in 20 years, we’re looking across the dinner table at our 30-year-olds who still live at home and seeing the error of our ways.

So I’m right there with you as I usher in a new dawn of understanding and eagerly search for better ways to parent. This brings me full circle to parenting bloggers with their salacious headlines followed by diatribes about how important it is to not lose yourself in your kids, to be yourself – always – regardless of the people around you, to “Treat yo self” and let everyone else be damned. Is this a healthier perspective? Will it create responsible, respectful individuals who will contribute positively to society? Because if that’s what we’re aiming for (and my multiple conversations with parents suggest it is), I’m not sure modeling the opposite behavior is such a good idea.

People, there is a happy medium between keeping your teenager on a 16-year-old umbilical cord and telling him exactly what you F*ing think of him. And guess what? You can have kids and still have a life outside of your kids. You’ve ALWAYS been able to do that. The only one who ever took that away from you is you. Needing time to yourself is a given, but the time to take it isn’t when you’re spending time with your kid. For the love of God, get a babysitter, go out on a date with your significant other, and cuss up a storm while you’re doing it! But when you’re with your kids, be with them. And don’t lie to yourself: They’re watching you and they’re learning from you, every word that comes out of your mouth and every action you take. Is the pressure on? Absolutely. But you signed up for this and you’ve got them for 18 years, so deal with it.

Parenting is not an either-or proposition. You can be both a parent and a lover. But you know enough to keep those roles separate, right? So why are we suddenly advocating for blurring those lines, for anything goes in front of your kids? Because anything does not go in front of your kids. There are parameters, there is such a thing as appropriateness, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where that wasn’t the case.

Arguably, one of the greatest skills you can hone to be successful in life is the ability to adjust your message and delivery depending on your audience. Think about it. Do you speak the same way to your grandmother as you do to your friends? Would you openly voice the same opinions to your minister as you would to your cocktail crowd? Even the most sincere among us adjust or adapt the way we present ourselves in various venues, around various people. It’s our way of showing respect for someone’s age, position, or personal beliefs. We don’t want to have contentious relationships, so we modify our language or message so we can get along with others. We’re not two-faced; we just know that in order to work and live effectively with other people, we have to be adaptable. It is truly a life skill. If you’ve been happily married for any length of time, ask yourself how many times you have checked yourself before speaking. Thank goodness the tongue heals quickly, for all the times you’ve probably bitten it.

So parents, the solution to overprotectiveness is not to stop protecting. The solution to Pollyanna parenting is not Pulp Fiction parenting. We don’t have to swing from tree to tree in the jungle of parenting philosophies. Sometimes a happy medium is the ultimate solution. Let’s do our future generations a favor and find it.

 

5 Parenting resolutions for the new year

The new year is upon us, and while I’m a big believer in reflecting on our choices and actions and how they panned out for us, I’m also a big believer in wiping the slate clean and allowing everyone to start fresh. With that mindset, I’ve put together a list of New Years Resolutions for parents. Yes, you should think about what’s worked in the last year and what’s failed, but then move forward into a new year with a commitment to better parenting. I can’t make any promises, but I’m fairly certain that practicing at least some of these will lead to a more peaceful home and a closer family.

  1. Make sure you save time for yourself. There’s a reason this is my number one item on the list. I’m going to give it to you straight: You can’t be a good parent – no matter how hard you try – if you don’t take care of yourself and attend to your own happiness first. Selfish? Not even a little bit. Strong parents make for strong kids.
  2. Decide as a family that you will all spend less time in front of a screen. I just returned from a family trip on a cruise ship, where we all put away our phones for an entire week. Here’s what we got instead: eye contact, uninterrupted conversations, random musings that come when you’re lying in the sun just thinking, and way more memories than selfies. If you want to communicate with your kids, put down the electronics and start talking.
  3. Commit to speaking more kindly to one another. While everyone gets angry, it shouldn’t be acceptable for members of a family to scream at each other on a regular basis, call each other names, say hurtful phrases like “I hate you!” or use profanity towards one another. Family members who respect each other live much more peacefully together. If you wouldn’t talk to your friends a certain way, you shouldn’t talk to your family members that way.
  4. Reserve dinner time as sacred family time. Sit down each night together and share stories of your day. If you’re religious, pray together. Share the dinner chores as a family so that everyone has a role in preparation or clean up. It may sound all Ozzie & Harriet, but families are closer when they covet each other’s presence.
  5. Laugh more, reduce stress, and increase joy. All relationships, whether friends, spouses, or parents and children, need fun and enjoyment to thrive. There may be plenty of pain in this world, but there’s also a great deal of humor to be found in day-to-day circumstances. Help your kids discover the inner joy that will sustain them through tough times by teaching them to find humor in their everyday lives. And just as importantly, quit stressing. Show your kids that gratitude and acceptance are two of the most freeing attitudes they can embody.

Happy New Year, everyone, and I wish you all the best in your parenting in 2016!

For more ideas about bringing your family closer together in the new year, check out Teenagers 101.