navigating the tween/teen years of parenthood
navigating the tween/teen years of parenthood

A friend and I were recently discussing the somewhat awkward phase for our 13 year olds — too old for camp, too young for a job, so how much free time do we give them?  Her comment to me was “You know, someone once looked at me when they were toddlers and said ‘enjoy this time, it is the easiest time you will have them!’  Little did I know how right they were!”   When they were little, it was all about basic needs – food, clean/dry clothes, sleep, possibly an ear infection or croup.   We were all sleep-deprived, so those challenges seemed Herculean at times, but they were relatively easy to fix (if not a tad annoying to hear at the time).

As our kids have grown, our skills as parents have had to morph.   We have to grow as parents as our children grow into young adults.  Any change can be hard to recognize and even harder to act upon, and this no exception.  As Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist who has authored seminal work on achievement and education, writes in her book, Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, Dweck writes about the marriage of ability and talent, with a growth mindset to achieve success as parents, professionals, in schools and in our personal relationships.  I’ve been a fan of her academic work for years, but am finding this book affirms many of my values and also challenges me to think outside my mental box to be a better teacher, learner, person and parent.

When they are young, parents are the micro-managers.  Attending to little details, planning, implementing, assessing and planning for the next activity.  You have to know when to be flexible and when to be the boundary keeper.  For those of us Type As or professional managers or planners, this came naturally.  As an early childhood teacher, I attacked home life much like a classroom – job charts, schedules posted, breaks for snack and quiet time, toys rotated in baskets to keep things fresh, projects connected to what we read or explored.  Gradually, as my kids grew older, I began to meet resistance.  My ideas and plans were (and are) challenged.  I am no longer the Chief Planner.  None of us are, as our little guys become tweens and teens.   This journey to help our children grow to be confident, happy, capable and caring adults continues but the tone, responsibilities and strategies shift.  Without a growth mindset, that is impossible.

I do recognize that my job has shifted and I’m adopting a serious growth mindset.   Dweck writes about the positive messages we have the power to send kids – “you are a developing person and I am interested in your development.”  That’s my mantra, particularly during pesky teaching or parenting moments.  “What are we going to learn from this? How are we going to move forward?”  That’s not to say I don’t lose my cool after repeated requests with a household task go unacknowledged. Just ask my kids, I do.  But as I remind myself that my job has changed, I think the unraveling moments are diminishing in frequency and intensity.  I’m an HR manager, a coach, a comedian (in my own mind), a referee, and yes, an ATM and taxi.   The more rational and productive thoughts generally prevail with this growth mindset as I remember to move beyond praising talent and intelligence, to asking questions which make them reflect on effort; to help them set their own goals which have skills and knowledge in mind; and insist on effort and commitment, not success in objective measures.

Heady thoughts for the lazy days of summer. Kids need to the downtime but I also want my kids to see summer as a time of opportunity for projects, personal growth, contribution to a larger organization (something or someone besides themselves!), a time to reconnect to family, friends, the outdoors, book characters, hobbies…. the important stuff that slowly slides to the far reaches of our consciousness during the school year.  So what do to with adolescents all summer? I am not an expert on adolescents, nor do I have the whole summer planned out and that is intentional. Here’s what I know I need to do as our summer rapidly unfolds.

  • Maintain sleep and meal schedules – tweens/teens  get busy and think they don’t need those boundaries, but when either need is not met, a toddler-like melt down will surely ensue, whether they will admit it or not. The stereotype of sleepy teens is certainly the reality in my house. Apparently, it’s exhausting to be a teen and their bodies are growing.  Reminds me of toddler days – eating, sleeping, moods changeable, nonetheless lovable.
  • Make my kids’ friends my friends – i.e., welcome them along for whatever we are doing. As much as my kids love our family (and they do still admit that!), friends are invaluable. The goofy antics of two 11-year-old boys or the unbridled giggles of a couple 13-year-old girls can surely get me roaring with them.
  • Encourage projects – give them the permission, materials (within reason), time, and responsibility to continue to question the world and investigate their potential.  This may be cooking, building, art, hikes, or organizing a small business.  Most adolescents are highly capable of doing that which interests them.   A little encouragement and a gentle nudge can engage any inertia and allow them to set their own goals and grow in new ways.
  • Keep them active – summer is an invitation for laziness and we all need that in moderation.  Allow for the down time, but also keep them moving with sports, jobs, games, camp, volunteer efforts.
  • Listen, listen, listen – It’s hard, especially when they ramble or get stuck on the same topic/issue/complaint, but the more I listen the more I am convinced they need to talk to sort out internal and external conflicts. Sometimes they do need to stop talking   – maybe to go write or to move forward with something else – but when they are ready to talk, I’ll be ready to listen.
  • Offer possibilities and perspectives, not solutions – Our kids want to feel like they are the decision makers.  When we offer solutions, they are likely to shut us out or dismiss that suggestion.  Phrasing such as “have you thought of….” or “what about….” often meets less resistance.  Allow them to think problems and solutions through and come to conclusions with input and guidance from us.

As our second full week of summer concludes, we’ve enjoyed many of the pleasures of a summer stay-cation.  We’re still reveling flexible schedule and the down time.  There is much that lays ahead – more adventures, time with extended family, chores, and summer reading…. I am resisting the urge to plan and mobilize folks into action as this summer and trying to assume the role of coach and navigator, not CEO or captain.  My tween and teen  will be taking a bit more responsibility to define the days which are the stuff of summer memories and opportunities for growth and I’ll be smiling along side them!

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