When schools fail your kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Parents: How back to school can change your life

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Boys don’t care and other teenage myths

Call this post a debunking one. I’m going to debunk what the media, movies, TV shows, and advertisements want us to believe about boys. I’m going to do this with 20+ years of experience dealing with thousands of teenage boys, lots of research, and my own experiences with my son and his friends.

Let me start by saying that while some boys fit the stereotypical images projected on the screen, most do not. Turns out, teenage boys have a LOT of feelings. And they’ll actually talk about them with people they trust. So let’s debunk some myths, shall we?

MYTH #1:  Boys break girls’ hearts and don’t care. If you’re a teenage girl, it may feel this way, but most boys care very much about girls’ feelings and don’t want to hurt them. When they appear thoughtless and careless, it’s really more that they’re somewhat clueless. Girls are an enigma to them, and they truly don’t understand female thoughts and actions. But it kills them to see girls cry, especially if they know they’re responsible for it.

MYTH #2:  Boys don’t hurt. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve seen big, bulky, manly teenage boys weep. I’ve seen them squirm and fold up into a ball because they’re uncomfortable with how they handled themselves or they have regrets over their actions. Boys definitely hurt. I can’t count the number of boys who have been crushed by their first loves, who spend years trying to get over the pain of a breakup. Sometimes I think boys actually fall harder and faster than girls, and it takes years of practice before they harden their shells a bit and learn to move on.

MYTH #3:  Boys don’t worry about their appearance. Wrong. Boys primp. They look to other males they admire for fashion sense. They very much want to fit in with their peers. They worry about acne and will spend any amount of money to make it go away. They’re self-conscious if they can’t grow a beard, if they’re “scrawny,” too short, too thin, or overweight. Girls’ self esteem gets plenty of media coverage, but I promise you, boys have their own body image concerns, and they’re just as real.

MYTH #4:  Boys have it easier than girls. While it’s true that boys are entering a world where men still make more money than women and hold more top positions. they also still face a number of challenges. We may have come a long way, but most men expect to support a family and carry that burden throughout their lifetimes. They are expected to be strong and resilient, with little acceptance for weakness.

MYTH #5:  Boys only want one thing. Most boys I know are insulted by that stereotype. Truly, they are. I mean, society is basically reducing them to animals with this statement, and they are much more evolved than that. Trust me, I’m not in denial. I’m well aware of hormones, urges, and daily temptations. But a good number of teenage boys want relationships. They want to date, text, text some more, and take a girl they like to Prom. They want companionship just like we do. Sure, they’ll joke around with their friends and brag about their so-called “conquests,” but when you engage them in real conversation, you find that they want to be in a relationship where they can love and be loved.

My point is that we need to give the boys some credit. They are much more complex than we have been led to believe. They love, they hurt, they worry, and they care. If you have a teenage boy in your life – whether he’s your son, nephew, student, boyfriend, or friend – give him a chance to show you who he really is and avoid slapping unfair labels on him. You’ll be surprised what he will share with you when he knows you have a real interest in knowing him.

10 tips for keeping your kids focused

May is just a month away, which means that kids are gearing up for final exams, final projects, and final efforts to pull out the desired grade. Some have additional stressors: AP exams, SAT or ACT tests, sports tournaments, the need to find a summer job, or just overall concern about that final GPA. At this point in the school year, everything about students’ body language and attitudes screams, “We’re over it!” So how can you help your kids walk that tightrope by finding a balance between taking school seriously and learning how to decompress?

Here are 10 tips for end-of-year school success:

1. Ask your kids how their note-taking is going. Many kids slack off as the end of the year approaches and need a reminder to take the same quality notes they took at the start of the school year. If their notes at the start of the year were thorough and extensive, and their notes now mostly consist of doodles and single words with little meaning, they will need a nudge back down the scholastic path. Point out the difference and remind them that how they end is even more important than how they started. *Note: If your kids are fond of taking pictures of teacher’s notes on the whiteboard, I urge you to discourage them from this practice. It is a proven fact that writing something down contributes to memory retention; taking a picture of it does not.

  1. Make sure they get their sleep. After daylight savings time, and as the days get longer, kids are tempted to stay up later and skimp on their zzzz’s. Encourage them to hit the sack at a decent time, at least until their last final has been put to bed. *Note: Cell phones are the primary culprit when it comes to late and restless nights. Insist your kids charge up in a different room with everything set to silent. Otherwise, the buzzes and beeps – not to mention their obsessive need to respond to them – will keep them up all night.
  1. Don’t be afraid to contact teachers. Kids tend to think that you are over school as much as they are (and you may be, but they don’t need to know that). Show them that you’re still paying attention by staying involved in their progress. Teachers are your allies and when you work with them, you’ll see positive results in your kids’ success.
  1. Encourage organization, especially when it comes to major projects and tests. What can they do today that will make tomorrow a little easier? *Note: The ubiquitous cell phone is the perfect place for kids to store due dates and scheduled activities. They can customize their calendars to send reminders, so there’s no excuse for forgetting.
  1. Keep your kids in school. Teachers see a significant increase in absences during this time of year, and many are unwarranted. Stress to your kids the importance of being in class every day and staying focused on their number one job.
  1. Offer to help your kids by quizzing them and guiding them through test preparation. Whether or not they accept your help is really secondary to the fact that you offered. When parents show an interest in their kids’ studies, it positively impacts kids.
  1. Make sure your children are well fed on testing days. Protein, grapes, blueberries, and other “brain foods” really do impact students’ abilities to focus and maintain energy. Breakfast IS important!
  1. Reward your kids when they do well or after they have completed a tough study or testing session. It doesn’t have to be monetary; it can just be time to sit and watch their favorite TV program or eat their favorite dinner.
  1. Stress mind over matter. Remind your kids that when they have prepared as best as they can, they should take a deep breath and go into their tests with confidence. Mind over matter is significant in determining testing outcomes, so it’s important that they maintain a can-do attitude.
  1. Always encourage balance. Studies show that taking work breaks rejuvenates the mind and helps us to work better and more efficiently. Make sure your kids are getting exercise and fresh air and socializing with friends and family. These pursuits are arguably crucial to overall well-being.

For more ideas about helping your kids find school success, check out Teenagers 101. 

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.