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!

 

 

Letting go

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?

 

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. 

 

Five signs that your daughter is a mean girl

If there’s any doubt in your mind that mean girls still exist, let me assure you, they do. One would hope, with all the enlightenment we’ve had about bullying and online abuse, that we’d be “beyond” mean girls at this point in time. After all, this is a generation that has grown up under the umbrella of tolerance, so how can they be so hateful to people they view as different?

Mean girls are alive and well, so if you’re a parent who wants to understand your daughter’s motives and intentions, here are five signs that she might be a mean girl:

1. She is frequently embroiled in drama. If your daughter is constantly involved in disagreements, misunderstandings, competition with other girls, and changing friend groups, she is likely, at the very least, contributing to the drama. Know who your daughter’s friends are and take note of how long she keeps them. If her conversations center on why she doesn’t like people, and a previous good friend is now odd-girl-out, question it.

2. She sees herself as better than other girls. While psychologists tend to blame bullying on low self-esteem, I’ve seen the opposite in my 20 years of teaching teenagers. Mean girls generally have something going for them. They’re pretty, they’re uber-confident, they come from a wealthy family, or they have strong personalities that intimidate others. Sure, they can be compensating for insecurities, but in my experience, they truly are girls with high self-esteem who believe others must be jealous of them. They love to watch other girls squirm while they boldly step over them. Look for statements and attitudes in your daughter that convey this “everyone is jealous of me” persona.

3. She uses her powers for evil, rather than good. She is a natural leader, someone people flock to, but instead of parlaying these qualities into maintaining a great group of friends, she uses them to turn others on her victims. This empowers her. If you hear your daughter bragging about how no one talks to Brittney anymore and she deserves it, question her. What did Brittney do and how must she feel now that she’s lost her friends?

4. She employs social media to discredit others. How would you know? Check her phone. Frequently. No, this is not a violation of trust. The minute your daughter posts something to the public, it is no longer private, and therefore, it is fair game. If she posts unflattering photos or sentiments about another girl, sends hateful texts, or holds discussions with her friends that malign and embarrass others, you have every right – and obligation – to question her, take away her phone, and educate her on the pain inflicted by words.

5. She has a Finsta (Fake Instagram). This will take some digging on your part, but you can determine this by becoming intimately acquainted with her phone or paying close attention to her conversations with her friends. Kids create Finstas so they can hide behind a secret identity or communicate with friends without parental oversight. Check your kids’ phones for other apps that allow for anonymous online bullying, such as Yik Yak, and make a decision about whether you want to allow these apps and what parameters you should place on them.

Yes, identifying mean girls requires diligence and some online savvy, but it is well worth it. According to a Big Brothers Big Sisters 2014 survey, 66% of parents’ top hope for their kids is that they be kind and giving to others. We all want our kids to show empathy and compassion, and we want them to grow into adults who will make us proud. If your daughter is heading down the mean girl path, provide a detour now. Show her that she can be confident, beautiful, and a natural leader without having to put others down.

For more on identifying characteristics in your kids, check out my book Teenagers 101 .

In order to have work ethic, your kids must work

If you’ve ever wondered what teachers think of your kids, I’m about to share. It’s not juicy, but it’s important. After spending some time with your kids, I can pretty easily identify who has held a job and who hasn’t. This is important, because kids who have collected hard-earned paychecks are quite different from kids who have collected only allowances.

The first indicator is the amount of work ethic a student has. If I have a student who lays back, passively learns, accepts zeroes, and is disorganized, I pretty much know that he or she hasn’t experienced employment. I’m not talking about during the school year. I’m talking about kids who have never held a summer or part-time job. These kids are recognizable enough that I generally recommend that teens work outside of school and outside of the home, that they have a boss they must answer to, a schedule they must keep, and responsibilities they must carry out, undesirable as they may be.

Let’s talk undesirable. In a competition with all my friends as to who has had the worst job imaginable, I win every time. Guess what I did at the age of 19, home from college for the summer when all my friends were busy tanning? I worked in the men’s wing of a nursing home. Yep, I win. And I think I’m scarred for life. My second worst job was when I was a mere 12 years old. I worked at a local nursery poking holes in dirt and planting seedlings. I got paid by the plant, I think 13 cents per. I swear my hands were stained for months. I also babysat (the ubiquitous girl job), waited tables (the ubiquitous young person’s job), and helped at my mother’s office (the ubiquitous daughter job). I disliked many of these careers, outright hated most of the rest.

Yet every single one of these jobs built my work ethic and made me who I am today. Every job taught me life lessons. Bathing and caring for the elderly taught me compassion, as you would expect. But it also gave me an appreciation for my young body and my long life. I’m convinced it formed the basis of my pledge to live life to the fullest, because looking into the eyes of the aged, I saw a sense that childhood, to them, seemed just a moment away. I’m not going to lie – working with plants made me hate gardening. But it also taught me that working with my hands was not for me. I needed mental pursuits, intellectual curiosity, and dress-up clothes as part of my daily life. Waiting tables taught me graciousness toward those who serve, that some people can be petty and cruel, and that most are kind and generous. From my mom’s desk and filing cabinets, I learned that I could never work in an office. To this day when I visit my husband in that setting, I cringe a little. And babysitting taught me that kids are their parents’ treasures, and that caring for them was the most important task I would ever undertake. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what inspired me to become a teacher, to see value in nurturing other people’s treasures.

What would have happened if I had not had these experiences? Where would I be today? Would I have continued in school, as far as I could go? Would I have spent two decades in my career, striving to be better every year? Would I have the same level of appreciation for the life I’ve created, doing what I want to do and what I’m good at?

When my own kids became teenagers and I required that they work, I was able to see the benefits from an entirely different perspective. My kids worked alongside single moms, adults with stories longer than my kids’ lives, people with chips on their shoulders, and bosses with superiority complexes. They learned the invaluable lesson that not everyone grew up the way they did. They learned how much work goes into a minimum wage job, and the responsibility they must undertake as working individuals to pay taxes to keep the larger society running.

Never underestimate the power of a job. The most “menial” jobs teach us the most profound lessons. They might set our course for our future career or turn us off of a path we had considered. They teach us to show up on time, stay to the end, and complete our tasks. We must find methods in which to get along and even be productive with those with whom we would never associate otherwise. Most importantly, they force us to do that which we hate, and to keep doing it, as long as necessary to complete the job. Why would I wish that on someone I love? Because it teaches perseverance, patience, work ethic, and character, all of which are sorely lacking in many people nowadays.

I see it in my students every day, the huge gap between those who have worked in the real world and been forced to adapt to someone else’s expectations, and those who expect life to be easy and comfortable, their needs automatically met. The first group tends toward resourcefulness and internal drive; the second toward passiveness and entitlement.

Parents, I urge you to get your kids working during the teen years. A few hours of work a week can be as beneficial as a full-time summer job. It’s not about the quantity of time at the job. It’s about the experience of being in the real world and learning that their upbringing is not everyone’s upbringing, their lives not everyone’s lives.

For more advice on raising great teenagers, check out my book Teenagers 101.

How well do you really know your kid?

Maya quoteA quote I repeat often is by the great Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I find this sentiment close to perfect because it brings to the forefront not what people tell you about themselves, but what their actions demonstrate about who they really are. My husband has always warned of smooth-talking men (perhaps because he’s not one), claiming that any man who spends that much time worrying about the right thing to say is clearly not genuine or authentic. This made me wonder – does the same apply to our kids?

Think about what your kids tell you about themselves. Then compare that to what they show you. Is there a disconnect there? Do you sense any hypocrisy between what they say and what they do? I’ve heard plenty of people say that if a teenager’s mouth is moving, he or she is lying. I don’t cotton to that jaded perspective, but I understand where the accusation comes from. Teenagers often lie, directly to our faces, and we believe them. They have perfected the art of presentation, the art of image, the art of deception. I’m not saying they’re malicious and cruel. I’m saying they know how to present themselves to different people, as, well, different people.

Your teenagers are different around me, their teacher, than they are around you, their parents. They’re even more different around their friends. Their grandparents. Their minister or rabbi. Police officers. Cliques at school. Fellow athletes. They are malleable. They are, many times, whoever their audience wants them to be.

Does this make them less real? No, because if you think about it, we all do the same thing, if in lesser proportions. I talk differently to you than I do to them, to my parents, to my minister, to police officers. But I’m fairly certain people know the real me. I’m not a woman of mystery; my face gives me away every time. Plus, I’m a grown woman who quite frankly rarely cares a whole lot about what others think of me. But teenagers care, very, very much. So they become chameleons to survive, to be accepted, and to be loved.

How do you know who your kids really are? Just listen to Maya. Pay attention to what they show you in various life situations. How do they treat adults and people in authority? How far will they go to be accepted? What’s their bottom line? What are their top priorities? How do they react to setbacks? How do they spend their free time? What people do they choose to spend time with? You can ask them every question in the book, and they can answer those questions, but it doesn’t mean you’re any closer to knowing your kids. Watch them. Look for patterns of behavior that truly show your kid’s character versus focusing on an isolated incident that is likely the result of a single poor decision. The patterns are key. Because I’ve taught so many teenagers for such a long time, I can recognize patterns quickly and identify where a kid is headed. It will be harder for you, but you can definitely do it. Just don’t get sidetracked by flimsy words unsupported by actions.

If, for instance, your kid presents herself as someone you can trust, someone who is just  hanging out with her friends on the weekends watching movies and talking, but she consistently misses curfew and acts strangely when she returns, pay attention to what she is showing you. Then follow up. Be the parent who calls the house (not your daughter’s cell phone) to make sure she is there and that parents are home. Set the boundaries, institute consequences, and see what she does next. Is she furious with you for checking up on her? Does she now start making curfew? What is she showing you about her level of maturity, her trustworthiness, and her understanding of her role as your daughter?

Your kids are not what you want them to be. They’re whole independent individuals who lead lives you only know a fraction about. They know you as mom and dad, but they really don’t know you as husband and wife. You know them as son or daughter. But how well do you know them as boyfriend or girlfriend, friend, student, classmate, or grandchild?

For help identifying patterns of behavior and figuring out just who your kids are, check out my book Teenagers 101.