Archive for Teens

All Dress-Shopping Fathers Go to Heaven

My husband and I learned how to depend on Divine Providence to meet out kid’s needs, especially our fashion-conscious teenage girls because we had nine children and little extra cash.

melanie's teensWith the grace of God, we lived through scores of tragic-comic dramas as my saintly husband, Michael, shopped with our  six daughters. Since I was at home with a crew of little ones, dad was the designated chauffeur and shopping monitor in our family.  He is a smart man; he always prayed before driving into town with the girls.

Our oldest daughter  still remembers and mentions a miracle shopping trip when she was 14 years old. She had her heart set on black, Baby Jane shoes for her grade eight graduation ceremony. As they entered yet another massive shopping mall, Michael heard the Lord whisper, “Turn right  and go into the first shoe store you see.” Right in the entrance was one pair of Baby Jane shoes, in the right size and on sale for half price. My daughter was thrilled and satisfied with the rather plain dress her grandmother sent for her because she wore those shoes.

For my second daughter’s graduation from our small country elementary school to high school, Dad volunteered once again for the shopping expedition into the city.

Four hours later,  my  daughter barged through the kitchen door, glared at me and announced very dramatically,

“I am never shopping with him again!”

She stomped through the kitchen and slammed the solid wood door to the hall behind her with a dramatic flourish.

A few minutes later, her father slipped through the front door, shoulders slumped and silently communicated his exhaustion and defeat.

“So,” I queried tentatively, “How did it go?”

Michael sighed and began to describe one scene in a dress shop. He had picked out a few pretty dresses which he felt were appropriate. Holding up a flowered print dress with a high, round collar, he called out to his daughter, “This one is very pretty.”

Our daughter responded by rolling her eyes dramatically,“Daaad…that’s way too childish.”

The sailor style dress that Michael thought was perfect was similarly dismissed. Then, our thirteen-year pulled out a black, spaghetti-strapped, slinky, black dress and squealed, “Dad, this is exactly what I am looking for!”

Poor Dad sighed but allowed her to try the dress on. She emerged from the dressing room complaining,

“It makes me look fat.”

Right then and there, my poor husband’s only desire was to sink into a deep hole because the store attendant and her customer both weighed about 300 lbs. each. Both women chimed in and exclaimed to our 115 lbs. teenager, “Oh no dear, I don’t think you look fat at all!”

As usual. God managed to work out our dilemma.  Our oldest daughter came to the rescue. She borrowed a cream-coloured dress from a friend, embossed with swirls and a Chinese style collar that was decent but not childish. The dress delighted our daughter and calmed my husband’s nerves.

It was and still is an educational experience for one of my adult daughters to shop with one of her younger sisters. After a particular stressful shopping trip, my oldest daughter stumbled through the door, complaining about her hard to please sibling.  She rolled her eyes and sputtered, “Do you want to know what kind of dress she wanted me to buy?!”

I laughed, “Oh, we know, sweetie, we know.”

What Adolescents Want (and How Attachment Parenting Gives It to Them)

teensMy 11-year-old always seems to be hanging around lately. Peering over my shoulder as I pay the bills, following me around as I search for a quiet room to sneak in a few minutes of prayer, and shuffling around the corner with a bored, middle school expression on his face right in the middle of a good conversation with my husband.

This is a kid who loves spending time with his friends. And there are times when I wish he was around a little more. But when he is home, I can’t seem to get rid of him. Most of the time, I love this. I want to spend time with him. I miss him when he’s gone. And I can’t help but feel a little worried that, one of these days, he’ll suddenly turn into the stereotypical teen and retreat into his bedroom or head out with his friends, never to be seen again.

So during those times that I really need to get bills paid, or I’m trying to concentrate on a Skype meeting with some fellow writers, I don’t put up too much of a fuss. I let him look over my shoulder. I let him sit next to me and invade my personal space. Because I’m not raising him to be a stereotypical teen.

I’m raising my son to look to my husband and me first as he figures out who he is in this world. When he was little, I taught him that he could trust me by responding promptly to his needs and always being there for him. He believed that I cared, and he believed that I understood him. I gave him a lap that was always ready to hold him, a bed that was always open to his presence, and a home where faith and love welcomed him with open arms. He knew he had a place where he belonged. By showing empathy towards his needs and responding to his cries, he learned that I am someone with whom he can always share his feelings. I am someone with whom he can be himself without fear of judgement or criticism. And, as a baby and toddler, he usually tagged along on most of my grocery shopping trips, social outings, and church activities. He learned to enjoy and absorb the world, while following my guidance as he learned how to live in it. These were all needs that my young son had, and they were fulfilled through intentional parenting. And as he grows up into a young man, I’m realizing that those needs haven’t changed.

The YDisciple parish youth group program outlines the five driving needs of adolescents in this way:

1. THE NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD

The need to be understood is a great psychological need for us as human beings. Unfortunately, the majority of teenagers do not believe that adults understand them. When an adult takes a genuine interest in a teenager and seeks first to understand, that adult earns the right to be heard. If adults want to hand on the faith to teenagers, they must seek first to understand what is going on in their minds and hearts. Teenagers don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.

2. THE NEED TO BELONG

Teenagers are driven to meet the “need to belong” before higher growth needs like understanding and living the Christian faith. In fact, it is often the case that teenagers will compromise the morals in which they have been raised in order to belong somewhere. If adults don’t help teenagers build healthy, life-giving relationships with one another, then teens will find a way to meet that need themselves. On the other hand, if adults create an environment where teens are known, loved, and cared for, they create an ideal environment for discipleship.

3. THE NEED TO BE TRANSPARENT

Teenagers rarely have the freedom to be transparent today, especially with one another. It is too dangerous to be vulnerable in a peer-dominated world focused on image and popularity. Teens long for the opportunity to be transparent about their doubts, concerns, fears, insecurities, hopes, and dreams, and to have the confidence of knowing they will not be judged, but loved and supported. In fact, this is necessary in order for them to grow in self-awareness and self-esteem.

4. THE NEED TO ENGAGE IN CRITICAL THINKING ABOUT FAITH AND LIFE

Teens are transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking and are able to conceptualize ideas such as love, justice, fairness, and truth. They are also capable of pondering the big questions in life such as: Is there a God? Do I need religion? Can I know God’s plan for my life? In addition, they are in the process of establishing independence and becoming their own person. Deep down they desire to be treated as adults and no longer want to be told what to do or what to believe. They are critically evaluating what they have been raised to believe and are not that interested in answers to questions they are not asking. Thought-provoking questions, lively discussion, dialogue, and freedom of expression engage teenagers in critical thinking.

5. THE NEED FOR GUIDANCE

Teenagers need dialogue, collaboration, and friendship with adults in order to become adults themselves. Relationships with adults help them answer deep fundamental questions like: Am I lovable? Am I capable? What difference does my life make? They are naturally idealistic and desire to be challenged to greatness through the direction, encouragement, and support of caring adults. It is a well-known educational principle that young people will rise to the level of our expectations of them. Teenagers will give their lives to Jesus through the witness and encouragement of loving, faith-filled adults.

While the YDisciple program is designed for parish youth groups to carry out in small group settings, the five driving needs of our adolescents are still there when they return home from their church activities. In fact, adolescents especially depend on their parents to fulfill these needs in the home and help them create peer groups that do the same. Meg Meeker points out in her book Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets To Raising Healthy Boys that “in one survey, 21 percent of kids said that they needed more time with their parents. But when the parents of these kids were polled, only 8 percent responded that they needed more time with their children. We become so absorbed with keeping up with our daily lives that we miss seeing what our [kids] really need, which is simply more of us: our time and our attention.”

When we spend more time with our kids, whether that be by taking them out for ice cream, playing a game with them, going on a bike ride together, or simply working side by side on a household project, we send the message that we understand them, they belong somewhere, they can be who God created them to be around us, we’re willing to converse with them about whatever is on their mind, and we care enough to guide them through our Christian witness.

And so I allow my son to breathe down my neck while I sort the mail. I answer his questions while I balance the checkbook. And my husband and I continue our in-depth conversation about our faith even after he walks into the room.

Because he’s growing up, but he’s still learning. He knows that my husband is the one who can teach him how to be a man, and that I’m the one who can teach him what to look for in a wife. His parents are still the people who he trusts to answer his questions and help him navigate the world, and this trust is what keeps us honest and shapes us into better people.

Our son depends on us to grow into the person God created him to be, and we depend on him to do the same for us. This is the beauty of family, of relationship, and of a firm foundation of trust and love.

How to Survive Teen Drama with Grace

Teenagers.  I am living proof it is possible to actually enjoy those annoying, hormonal, child/adult hybrids who have taken your phone, tv., computer and fridge hostage.

One of my sons, in his early teens, had just announced he could not stand living under our roof another minute,

“I’m out of here!,” he bellowed, “and don’t expect me to come back!”

The door slammed and he tore off on his ten-speed bike. Of course, my father was visiting and witnessed this dramatic episode. After a few minutes, Dad turned to my husband Michael and wondered, “Aren’t you going to go after him?”

Michael calmly kept reading, then looked up and explained, “Oh, I’m not worried. The only place near enough to bike to is one of his buddy’s and they don’t feed kids over there. He’ll be back when he is hungry enough.”

melanie photoSure enough, hunger brought my son home late that night. We did not need to pronounce any ultimatums because the recognition he still needed to live at home and attempt to get along with our rules and his family was humbling enough. No need to rub his face in the facts.

Teenagers are often humiliated by their mistakes in judgment so they relish the opportunity to catch us in the wrong.  For example, Michael’s usual response to swearing, disrespect or a poor attitude was, “Leave that sort of stuff at school!”

One evening at the dinner table on a Sunday, Michael yelled in anger at the dog.

David had just filled his plate and was coming back to the table. He leaned over, looked at his dad and with a twinkle in his eye and a huge grin on his face said, “Leave that sort of stuff at church, eh Dad!”

Michael snapped out of his bad mood and had to smile. The kid was right. David’s humour diffused the situation and Michael was the one who had to apologize this time.

Teenagers have a deep inner compulsion to rile their parents and flaunt rules in a blind attempt to figure out who they are in and of themselves. If I remember this fact, I don’t overreact to obnoxious behaviour. I like to compare teenagers to two-year-olds because the very same dynamic is unfolding, only this time it is a stressful transition from childhood to adulthood which requires many years to complete. I read somewhere that young adults finally get an adult brain when they’re 25! In our family, we actually celebrate this birthday and welcome our offspring into full adulthood.

Sometimes teenagers, boys especially, like to prove their new-found strength. David loved to come behind me in the kitchen and with a huge grin on his face pick me up and swing me around or even turn me upside down!

“Oh well,” I’d think to myself, “This too will pass, this too will pass.”

Teens: Signs of Healthy Independence

This summer my teenager, Aidan (almost sixteen years old), has spent a lot of time away from home at two different camps. He struggled with self-doubt before these excursions, wondering if he could handle being away from home. Now, let me tell you, the part of me that wants to tuck my babies away in my pocket and keep them safe and close for the rest of their lives would have been quite happy to have him skip these trips! But they were opportunities for growth, fun, and, most importantly, they were his idea.

One of the camps was the “encampment” week for Civil Air Patrol, an organization Aidan enjoys immensely.   (CAP is an auxiliary of the Air Force.  Aidan think he may want to become a military pilot.)  The encampment is like boot camp. 5:30 wake ups, precision drills, obstacles courses, and yelling. Lots of yelling. Not my cup of tea, quite frankly, but it’s not meant to be enjoyable really; it’s meant to force the cadets to stretch their limits, to challenge themselves on every level. While encampment sounded scary to Aidan, it’s just one of these things he knew he needed to get through to move forward in Civil Air Patrol.

Aidan at encampment graduation

Aidan at encampment graduation

The other camp was an aviation academy for young aviation enthusiasts, which is held annually in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to coincide with a famous air show there. Aidan applied for and won a scholarship to attend the camp. He worked very hard for the scholarship; it was a chance of a lifetime. Of course he should attend. But he was nervous, downright scared, because he would have to travel alone and he would be far from home if he should become ill or something went awry.

Thankfully, our Aidan has faced his fears, attended these camps, and ended up enjoying himself immensely. He made new friends, learned tons, and gained confidence. Upon returning from encampment (which turned out not to be as merciless and severe as older cadets made it sound), Aidan was promoted to a staff position and the rank of sergeant at Civil Air Patrol.

I’m glad Aidan didn’t let his anxiety get the best of him, but these conversations with my maturing boy over the past few months forced me to contemplate seriously the issue of adolescent independence. How can we be sure our teenagers are becoming appropriately independent – not too dependent on us for everything, but also not too detached and peer-obsessed? How can we tell the difference between these extremes?

I addressed these questions last week with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life.  In case you missed it, here’s the whole show!  The topic of the show was “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?”.  My bit comes in about 20 minutes into the show.

Here’s a quick run-down of what we talked about: 1) some signs of unhealthy dependence in our teens, 2) sign of healthy, unfolding independence, and 3) and how to increase the chances our kids fall into camp two.

Signs of Unhealthy Dependence

1.  Your teen depends on you or his peers for how he feels about himself.

Children can be too dependent on either their parents or their friends for his sense of okay-ness in the world. For example, when Dad puffs out his chest when he brings home an A or scores the winning point in a game, he feels awesome, but if Dad is disappointed in him, it ruins him. This child works very hard to gain the approval of his parent or friends in order to feel at rest.

2.  Your teen can’t form his own opinions or make decisions without checking with you or his friends.

These kids depend on their parents or peers for everything they think, feel, and do. They lack a sense of ownership of their lives and their future. They can’t distance their own opinions from those of others, because they don’t have any. They want to become what you want them to become, or they want to wear only what their friends think is cool.

3.  Your teen acts like he hates your guts.

This one may surprise you.

Some parents think that teenagers naturally become obnoxious, rude, and insulting when they are trying to spread their wings and separate from mom and dad, but this isn’t true. If your child is completely rejecting of your values or opinions, if she acts as if the air around you stinks because you’re so awful, she is not developing a healthy kind of independence. These children may be harboring anger and resentment toward the parent which needs to be addressed, because their hostility shows that they are in a weird way still bound up with the parent – they do not enjoy a healthy emotional distance from the parent. This child may also be primarily attached to her peers for her sense of meaning and identity, which is dangerous.

Signs Your Teenager Is Becoming Appropriately Independent

1.  Your teen has interests and passions that he has found himself rather than ones his friends or parents choose for him.

Parents sign up their little kids for soccer or Latin lessons because they think it’ll be good for them or that they’ll enjoy it. As teenagers explore and expand their minds and perspective, they will naturally find interests and true passions on their own if we give them the freedom and opportunity. Parents shouldn’t be constructing their teenager’s entire life for him.

2.  Your teen can say no to friends when they invite her to do something that doesn’t really interest her or that conflicts with her values.

While dependent teens do whatever we or their friends want them to do out of a desperate need for acceptance, the independent teen has her own mind and can say NO on occasion. As your teen become more confident and independent, she will pass on invitations from friends when those friends want to see a movie that doesn’t interest her, and she will walk away from situations in which she feels her friends are behaving inappropriately or making choices that conflict with her values. She may or may not actually confront the friends about their actions or explain to them why she doesn’t want to see the movie, but she chooses to follow her own path on occasion even if it means she’s outside her peer group for a while.

3.  Your teen comes to you for guidance, but he has an increasing sense that he can make wise choices and take care of himself.

Many teenagers are fiercely confident — often over-confident — in their capabilities. They often take on unwise (even plain stupid) risks. Other teenagers, like my son Aidan, struggle with confidence when faced with the unfamiliar, when confronting perfectly reasonable risks. He has always been more circumspect and cautious than other kids his age, but I can see that as he is maturing he is gaining confidence in his ability to tackle obstacles himself. As I type, he is preparing to travel back from his aviation camp. He’ll have to change planes twice and he’s traveling as a regular passenger, not as an unaccompanied minor. He knows that if there are unexpected hiccoughs, he can call us and we’ll give him guidance and support. He’s nervous, yes, but also thrilled to be flying on THREE different planes in one day!

Increasing the Chance that Your Teen Will Fall Into Camp 2

1.  Love your child unconditionally.

Make sure your teen knows he has intrinsic value and that you adore him no matter he does or doesn’t do. Children have a right to our unconditional love, even when they fail, falter, or fall.

2.  Don’t force independence.

Don’t push your child into independence too fast and early when he’s small. In early life, children need a sense of security in our care, balanced by little nudges toward adventure and risk as they grow and mature.  Dr. Popcak says that independence isn’t given, it’s taken. We cannot force a child to become independent no matter how much we try. It is something that unfolds naturally when a child feels secure in our love, when he has opportunities for growth, when we support him when he steps away, when we hug him when if he needs to return.

3.  Give your child opportunities to solve his own problems, both big and small.

As your child grows, when he has a conflict, problem, or struggle, try not to jump right in to save him. This can be excruciating, because we love our children so much, but by allowing him to experience his struggle and guiding him in possible solutions without fixing it for him, he will increasingly find ways to solve his own dilemmas. This gives our child healthy autonomy and self-direction.

Do I think Philip and I have achieved a gold stamp in raising an independent teenager?  Certainly not.  We muddle through and learn about ourselves and him along the way like everyone else.  But I can see the signs of God working below the surface in our relationship with Aidan and in his life; I can see an emerging independence, even if it’s messier than I expected!

Dropping My Net for Jesus (and Claire)

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.  Matthew 4:18-20

My oldest child, Aidan, is fifteen.  Like his dad, he’s good-natured, warm, and caring.  He actually says things like “I don’t really wanna go over to Tom’s house tonight.  I need time alone to think” and “I was thinking of having the guys over this afternoon.  Would that be okay or did you need me to help with the kids?”.  I’m sure some parents want to rip my eyes out when I tell them these things, or they think I’m a bloody liar.  But it’s true.  He has never given me an “attitude”.  He’s never been rude, condescending, or hurtful to me, at least not intentionally.  I’m hoping his lovely nature is partly the parenting style Philip and I have chosen, but truth be told it’s probably in large part his temperament.  Truth be told, many loving, warm, generous parents struggle with their kids during the teen years.

I think I’m going to be one of them.  Because, you see, I do have other kids.  There’s this one really fun, perky, cute one who is only going on eleven and I think she’s aging me five years for  every year of her fun, perky, cute living.  This is Claire.

Claire, Claire, Claire.

She is an example to me of what it means to live like Henry David Thoreau: like today is your last day, so you better grab it by its special place, look it in the eye, and announce, I’m here so whad’ya got, eh?  She’s a little sun in the room —  full of ideas, energy, and inspiration.  A talented artist and devoted friend, she loves passionately and commits without reservation.  She does everything BIG and FERVENTLY.   The underside of this wonderful disposition is those long, cold silences when she’s been wronged (or thinks she’s been wronged) and the ear piercing shrieks when she’s angry (or sometimes really, really happy).

Take this weekend.  On Saturday evening, Claire and I enjoyed a lovely time creating pretty things together, side by side.  For a while I worked on a new purse, while she fussed around with a pillow project.  Then she asked if we could both make a felt robin she saw in a book and I said yes.  I put away my project and together we looked over the instructions for the robin and got to work.  She cut out the pattern pieces, I used the pattern to cut out our fabric and we both started a robin, chatting and laughing like some wonderful ad for an attached family commercial.

Then it changed.

At bedtime, she was angry.  With somebody.  About something.  Silence.  Stomping.  Retribution.  Somebody needed to be punished for whatever had affronted this poor, betrayed child, only nobody knew what the heck was wrong.  She went to bed with a furrowed brow and would not speak to any of us.  I went to her room like I always do after lights out.

“Are you okay, Claire?  Do you want to talk about it? ”  SILENCE.

“Should I leave or do you want me to sit here with you?”  A gruff flip of the covers over her shoulder told me to GET THE HELLOOKA OUT.  So I left and let her have some space.

The next morning she turned her back to me when I told her we’d be seeing our friends the Schwarzes and the Markels at Mass.  About this time I started to get really annoyed.  I knew I hadn’t done anything to cause this kind of rejection.  The thought crossed my mind, “Who the heck does she think she is?  I am her MOTHER.  She better shape up.”  The actual words that crossed my mind were more spirited, but let’s just say, I was indignant.   Fortunately I didn’t tell her what I was really thinking and instead said firmly, “I’m sorry you’re angry, but you still need to be ready for Mass by 9:20.  No computers until you’re dressed and ready to go.”

At 9:20 she was dressed and we drove to Mass.  When she saw that there was a pancake breakfast that morning after Mass she broke her silence and asked, “Oh!  Can we go to the pancake breakfast?!”  When I said yes, she jumped on me, kissed me, and said, “I LOVE YOU, MOMMY!”  And that was it.  The silent treatment was over.  She has been happy, fun, and talkative since.  It only took pancakes.  Or did it?

78025250The thing is, raising Claire is not over.  It’s not about pancakes in the long run.  During Mass, Father Mark reflected on the Gospel passage for the day, in which Jesus calls to Peter and Andrew to “come follow me” and they immediately drop their nets and follow him.  Immediately.  Father Mark talked about what this means for us as modern day disciples of Jesus:  It means we let go of whatever is getting in the way of our doing what Jesus wants us to do.  What does it mean for me to drop my net and follow Jesus?  It means I let go of my old ways, things that keep me from living fruitfully with Jesus, from fulfilling the mission he has for me and my life.  Claire is part of my fruitful living, my mission.

In my history, when somebody has wronged me, hurt me, I was very much like Claire.  Holding grudges, pointing to my wounds, failing to see the wounds I’d caused.  Now I’m a big girl, a grown-up.  I hope I’m not that way so much anymore, but I can still see a bit of that in myself and I don’t like what I see.  If I want Claire to become open, caring, and willing to work on problems with the people she loves, I have to lead the way, especially as her mother.  My net is my pride, my occasional unwillingness to listen and compromise, my conviction that I must be right.  I don’t want to pass on that net to my precious girl.

I need to help Claire understand and manage her own big emotions, but I do that partly by managing my own.  It’s funny.  Once again, God parents me through my parenting, heals me through my mothering.  He is asking me to put down my net, a net I never would have noticed had it not been for Claire.  The world might have looked at my pride and dubbed it strength or dignity.  Nothing wrong with strength or dignity.  But ignoring a neighbor for a year for setting off illegal fireworks is not dignity, it is pride — and that is the truth . . .  and my net.  We all have our nets — those things we don’t want to let go of, those things that get in the way of our following Jesus, of living the life he has planned for us.  I have more nets than my pride, of course, but I’m so grateful that Claire has motivated me to commit to putting down my net of pride and following Jesus a little bit better.

Image Credit:  Thinkstock (photos.com)

3 Secrets Every Parent Should Know About Teenagers

86534359My oldest child Aidan turned 15 recently.  When he was approaching the teen years some of my friends scared me.  Ah hah! Just wait! Now you’re in for trouble! was the general message.  For those of you with kids approaching the teen years, take courage.  I’ve found that the friction and hostility between parents and teens is not inevitable and it’s certainly not what God has in mind for our families.  I explored this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their Catholic radio program More2Life on Thursday, September 12th.  You can listen to the entire radio program here.

The truth is, we can continue to enjoy a thriving, healthy, loving relationship with our teenagers if we are willing to parent with our eyes and hearts open.  Philip and I certainly made our mistakes in parenting Aidan over the years.  After all he was our first and we are but imperfect human parents not robots, but he is honestly just as sweet and kind as he was ten years ago, only now he can beat me at an arm wrestling match! He’s beginning to find his way in the world, defining his path, envisioning his future.  He is learning how to articulate his opinions and views but he is never hostile or rude.  This is because he knows we value his thoughts and opinions, and that we will extend respect to him even if we disagree with him.  We haven’t made it necessary for him to hate us or reject us. 

On the radio show, I shared 3 secrets I think every parent should know about teenagers:

1.  Teenagers actually want a close relationship with us.

God created human beings from communion and connection; teens are no exception.   A teenager does need to individuate – to define herself – who she is & what she is about (her identity), and how she’ll spend her life (her personal mission).  But this individuation process does not require rudeness, contempt, or rejection from teenagers.  In fact, its critical to our teenager’s mental health that he feels safe and secure in his relationship with us.  So how do we protect our relationship with our teen while encouraging his individuation?

Maintain rapport:  It can take a lot of creativity and soul searching to maintain rapport with some teenagers, but the fact is rapport is necessary in our relationship with our teen if we want to have any kind of influence or impact on their lives.  Rapport is built through 1) respectful communication 2) a playful relationship and 3) clear expectations and boundaries.

Help her find her path:  Be the go-to person for your child as she finds her direction in life.  Be open as she searches for The Thing that matters to her, The Cause that arrests her attention.  With kindness, openness, and understanding help her define what she wants her life to be about.  Make it safe for her to share her dreams with you.

Let her make mistakes within reason:  I am not suggesting here that we let our teens go out and get drunk!  But we do need to let our teens test their sea legs before they set sail.  Teenagers have their own ideas about how things should be done – how the dishwasher should be loaded, how a geometry problem should be solved, how a conflict with a friend should be resolved.  When we are too eager to press our “perfect answer” on our teen without helping her explore her own problem solving abilities, we are depriving her of the opportunities revealed through trial and error, through honest mistakes.

2.  It is not healthy (or normal) for a teen to spend more time with peers than family

If your teenager is more attached to her peers than you, you have a giant problem.  Many parents assume that their teen’s obsession with being in constant contact with friends through email and instant messaging is normal and healthy but it is not.  While it might be natural for teenagers to be interested in friendship and deepening social bonds, we parents must still be the primary role models for our children as they seek to define their values.  This is the way it worked down through history until recent decades.  Sadly, we are parenting in a time that is unique in history:  children are looking to each other for signals about what is valuable, about what deserves their attention and respect.  They are turning to each other in times of distress or trial instead of their parents.  Basically, kids are raising kids.  Big mistake.

Your child must be more identified with your values than those of her peers, but attachments can become skewed and destructive, so that your child doesn’t give a hoot about your opinions.  When this happens, your child would rather lose your respect and trust than do anything to threaten the fragile connection she has with her peers.  We have no control over or influence on our child in these situations.

Attachment is important in the infant and early childhood years, but it’s equally important in teen years.  We have to maintain our connection and rapport with our teenager so that our family life and our parental love remain the center of influence in his life.  Make it a priority in your home to spend time together as a family playing, laughing, connecting – whatever that means to you.  Let your teenager have a say in how you spend your family time, too.

3.  A teenager’s body looks grown-up but his brain is unfinished

Neuro-imaging is shedding light on how the teenage brains works.  The brain’s pre-frontal lobe — which is involved in planning, strategizing, and organizing, in philosophizing and pondering our existence – this part of the brain is unfinished in the teen years.  This is why teenagers are prone to becoming distracted easily.  Knowing this can give us empathy for a giant teenager when he forgets to take out the garbage.  The immature teen brain also explains their tendency to be impulsive without regard for safety or consequences.  Parents often lament some of the poor choices their teens make, especially when with friends.  They do things parents can’t imagine them doing.  Teens need our firm and loving guidance in how to balance their obligations and to plan their commitments wisely.  They need our continued mentorship in the virtues as they are confronted with difficult moral choices.  They still need our intentional, loving parenting.

For further reading on raising your teenager with compassion and respect, check out these resources:

Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld.  This is a must read for parents of older kids and teens.  Warns against common lifestyle practices that result in the transferring of attachments from parents to peers in the teen years.  Powerful.

Positive Discipline for Teenagers by Jane Nelson

Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel.  This book is set for release on December 26.  I rarely recommend a book that I haven’t yet read myself, but I’ve read several of Siegel’s other books and I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the release of this one!  It promises to demystify some of the brain science that explains teen behavior so that we can turn it into something positive.

Image credit:  Jupiter Images (photos.com)

The Family & The New Evangelization

year of faith photo

Today is the Feast of the Ascension.  At the Ascension, Christ announced the Church’s mission to the Apostles:

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.  Matthew 28: 19 and 20.

Christians aren’t meant to sit back and cheer on the Church as she tries to spread the Good News of salvation and Christ’s love.  (Way to go guys!  Convert those lost souls! Woo-hoo!   . . .  Okay, where’s my remote?)  All Christians are called to the task of evangelization.  This truth is evident in the Vatican’s efforts to promote “The New Evangelization” at every level of society.  Ordinary Christian men and women are critical in transforming not only non-Christianized nations, but the de-Christianization of previously rich Christian communities.

But what about parents?  How can we be useful in the serious work of conversion when we have a family to care for?  Today my toddler decided to run the hose in our unlandscaped yard, creating a mud pile; she then rolled around in it until she was covered in mud from head to toe.  This morning, my teenager was having a hard time deciding whether he felt comfortable riding his bike to the middle of town to meet some pals for a movie.  He needed my attention and my ear all morning.  And I will not  mention (okay, I’m mentioning it) my nine-year-old daughter who needs gentle lessons in why growing girls need to wear clothes around the house.

Gee whiz!  I know I’m not alone.  We are busy raising our children and keeping our homes running smoothly.  How do we become part of the Church’s work of conversion?  I explored this question with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life today.  The fact is, not only are we called to participate in The New Evangelization, but we have a special role to play.

Our first disciples are very near

The Church has identified the family has particularly critical to the Church’s work of evangelization.  However, you don’t need to go off to distant lands to obey Christ’s call to convert the world.  We heed the call by evangelizing our own children:  our first disciples are our children.  We can spend lots of time in Church ministries, packing care packages for the poor, and raising money for missions, but let’s not kid ourselves:  If we fail our children, we fail the call.  Our culture tells us that what we do at home in the private sphere of the family is insignificant especially socially and politically.  But family is everything. It is always and everywhere.  Every human being begins as part of a family.

ConnectionThe family is the first school of love.  Christ said we are to teach and convert our children, so what are our children learning in our families?  Are they learning fear, hate, and rebellion or joy, love, and communion?   Lisa Popcak mentioned her concern that many of her homeschooling friends assume that because they are using a Catholic homeschool curriculum, their children will grow up to become faithful, fulfilled Catholics, but the evidence does not bear this out.  One study I looked at claimed that Catholic children are more likely than not to fall away from the faith in adulthood.  We cannot assume that because we form our child’s mind with good Catholic information that she’ll remain Catholic.  We must win her heart first.  To carry our values into adulthood, our child must see us as credible authorities and care about our values.  By attending to the quality of the attachment and connection between our children and ourselves, we are tending their hearts, and drawing them to Christ.

Studies consistently show that children who are raised in harsh, negative environments are less likely to internalize their parents’ values than children raised by firm but kind parents. Quite simply, we impact the world in the way we love our children.

See those Christians, how they love

The New Evangelization calls us to reach out not only to non-Christians, but also Christians who have lost the faith.  We can do this work comfortably within the vocation of parenting.  You don’t have to stand on a street corner with a Bible to fulfill this call.  The world will see the witness of our lives and wonder what we have that they don’t have!  (See those Christians how they love!) Just in our love, neighborliness, and hospitality toward others, we can evangelize the world.  Inviting acquaintances to your home to share a meal and to experience the love of a healthy, thriving family is a powerful way to participate in the Church’s mission.

Sharing the comfort and warmth of our families in this way will impact others in more ways than we can imagine.  I believe American culture in particular is starving for the kindness and warmth that can be found in strong, loving Catholic homes.  So, invite a work acquaintance home for dinner; bring a widowed or sick neighbor cards made by your children and bring your children along to deliver them; invite a fallen Catholic to share in your Easter dinner.  You don’t have to lean into their faces and ask, are you saved, in order to spread Christ’s Good News.  Your love is the Good News.  As one of the Popcaks’ callers put it, sometimes it’s most compelling to allow others to meet Christ in us, in our merciful actions, instead of through our words.

He is with us always

As we live this noble, sacramental life of parenting our children, of evangelizing world through our families, we will struggle, we will fall, we will suffer.  Christ promised he would be with us always in this work.   Especially through the sacraments, Christ will strengthen us and give us wisdom for the journey.  We must not only attend Mass faithfully in order to take the Eucharist, but we parents benefit from the healing and direction available through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

We can also meet Christ in prayer.   Each family has a unique path, a special mission within the larger mission of the Church, but we will never know what that is unless we are willing to cultivate our prayer life, both personally and as a family.  If you can’t imagine how you can fit in family prayer in a schedule that is already jammed, start small.  Perhaps you can just pray the Morning Offering together before you all leave for the day, pray at dinner, and then pray again with your children when they’re going to bed.  Praying the rosary is a great way to introduce family prayer even with small children.  With lots of littlies, it’s okay to just pray one decade of the rosary.  Once you have made a commitment to prayer and it becomes family habit, you will notice real changes in the emotional and spiritual environment of your home.

Christ is also with us through the fellowship of other Christians.  I can become isolated in my large parish because I’m so shy, but when I make the effort to get involved in parish activities and events, I am always glad.  I especially appreciate how my children benefit from feeling part of our parish community: they love knowing the special, pretty places on the parish grounds, the names of our deacons (and where they eat lunch after Mass!), and those small seemingly mundane details that often give us all a comfortable sense of belonging.

He is with us always as we lead our domestic church, as we convert the world one moment at a time, one conversation at a time, despite muddied toddlers and teen angst — no, it’s through those things that our evangelical work thrives!

Steubenville: Lessons for Parents

The conviction this week of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, for raping a 16 year-old girl will lead many parents to ask themselves serious questions.  After a night of drinking, the two players and the girl ended up in the basement of somebody’s house.  The girl woke up the next morning naked, unsure of what had happened.  Photos were taken of her apparently passed out.  She was raped in a car on the way to the house and in the basement.  The boys were convicted and will remain in prison until they’re 21.

As the parent of a teenage son, this case forces me to think carefully about how I’m raising him.  How much privacy do teenagers need to feel we respect their judgment?  How do basically decent kids end up in the situation like that in Steubenville?  What can we do to protect our own teenagers from making such disastrous and heartless choices?

Teens and Privacy

Teens deserve opportunities to demonstrate their independence, but they’re still kids.  I’m wondering, of course, how the teenagers got access to so much alcohol in several locations that night.  I’m wondering, too, where the parents were at these parties.  It’s a great idea to be the home where our teen’s friends like to come, but we don’t want our home to be the home where they go to hide.  Philip and I have a very welcoming attitude with Aidan’s friends in our home. He’s never had a group of boys and girls together, always only boys.  We want them to know we like having them here and that we see them as individual, interesting people, not a group of boys.  Obviously we would never provide them with alcohol or let them bring it in.  Did the Steubenville parents just look the other way because these were football stars, or were they not around at all?  Did they care?

We give Aidan and his pals some level of privacy so they can enjoy themselves, but we always know where they are in the house and what they’re doing.  Their hangout spot is in our office right next to the family room.  We check in on them regularly to bring them snacks, and to ensure they know we’re around.  Aidan and his pals have sleepovers at our house once a month.  My husband Philip stays up until they’re going to bed, not only to keep an eye on them, but he likes the movies and games they play!

While we would never leave this group of kids unsupervised at night, when this same group of boys is here during the day, I do leave on occasion with my younger children to run errands.  I wouldn’t hesitate to leave my teenager home alone, but it does occur to me now that I consider the dynamics of teen relationships that I might choose in the future not to permit gatherings in my home with Aidan’s friends if I don’t plan being present in the house the entire time.  When I think about these boys it’s difficult for me to believe anything unthinkable would happen, but at the very least I plan to discuss this issue with the parents of Aidan’s friends.

If at some point, girls enter the picture and we’re looking at hosting a group of boys and girls together, we’ll have to talk with Aidan about our expectations and values.  I cannot imagine we’d ever allow girls in a room with the boys with the door closed.  Seems not much good could come from that much privacy.  While we trust Aidan, we don’t want to put him in a situation that’s more than  he could handle.

Start with Connection Protection

86508783So, obviously, appropriate supervision is essential.  Let’s not forget teens also need a healthy connection to their families. It’s easy for parents with lots of children to sort of forget that teenagers need intensive parenting and care just like the little ones; it’s just a different kind of care.  We need to nurture our connection with our teens so they know they can come to us with their concerns.  We, the parents — not our teen’s friends — need to be our teen’s go-to people when it comes to knowing what is right and what to do in hard situations.

Ensuring our teen remains part of our family routine and rituals – regular family dinner gatherings, game nights, outings, and family projects – can foster his sense  of belonging in our family and identifying with our deepest values.  Including him in discussions about some family decisions can help him feel respected.  Maintaining a lighthearted attitude with teens is especially important.  They often like connecting with us through joking around or even play fighting.

By maintaining our rapport with our teens, we make it more likely they’ll internalize our values and that at the very least they’ll talk to us if they’re considering or witnessing risky behavior.

Lessons in Virtue   

Of course, if teenagers want to drink they’ll find a place to do it.  I remember some kids when I was growing up taking bottles of liquor into the bushes in our neighborhood to hang out and drink.  Worse, if teenagers are intent on having sex or raping somebody, there’s not much we can do to stop them unless we lock them in the house. We have to raise them so that they don’t want to do these things.

If your teenager is old enough to discuss this case, it might provide an opportunity to talk about some big issues.  We’re all pretty sure our kids would never get themselves into this kind of situation.  Unfortunately, when teenagers start drinking, a pack mentality can set in, and they will sometimes do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.  If they want to fit in, they’ll go along with the crowd.  Peer pressure is awful for teenagers.  Talk to your teen about why drinking is illegal for teens and what alcohol does to the body, especially the brain.

This case also demonstrates the importance of guiding our children in several virtues.  Chastity is the big one.  Living in dignity and respecting the dignity of another person is essential to the Christian call.  Living a wholesome lifestyle and resisting pornography and immodest dress is unpopular in teen culture, but we have to have that talk.  In addition, a healthy attitude toward sex is important.  Our teens should know that they can’t rely on popular culture’s attitude toward sex as a guideline for their behavior.  The Theology of the Body teaches us that we should never use another human being to satisfy our own needs or desires.  Popular culture preaches self-centered pleasure seeking no matter the cost.

Courage requires us to do the right thing even when it’s hard.  Hopefully if our kids walked in on the scene in that basement they would have the courage to speak up, or at least get an adult to intervene.  Providing opportunities for our child to practice moral courage when they’re younger is critical.  If they hurt somebody, require them to make amends and make the situation right, whatever that takes.  If they see one of their friends feeling left out or being picked on, help your child be the one to step in to right the wrong.

Mercy is the ability to enter into the chaos of another.  I think empathy is closely tied to the virtue of mercy.  Empathy is our ability to feel and understand the emotions and pain of another person.  What does that other person really need?  It’s easy to assume we know, but if we are empathic, and really take the time to enter the person’s emotional chaos, what they really need is often different from what we originally assumed.  One of the football players in the case said he “took care of the girl” when she was drunk.  What does that mean?  Did he put a coat over her after he raped her?  The facts of the case demonstrate the chaos involved: the emotional and cultural chaos that led to the rape, and the resulting chaos of regret and pain.  Perhaps we can talk to our teen about what might be acceptable and safe options if they ever see somebody incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.

Many discussions need to ensue from what happened in Steubenville, not only between parents and their teens, but between parents themselves, clergy and parents, and schools and parents.  But starting within our own domestic church by forming our children’s hearts and collecting them in our arms is a good place to start.

Photo credit:  Jupiter Images (photos.com)

Bonding and Godly Parenting

When I became a new mother nearly fifteen years ago, I set out to discover what my baby needed to thrive in every way.  When I looked into his blinking blue eyes and stroked his downy hair, I didn’t want sweet Aidan to be just “okay” – I wanted more for him.  I wanted him to become all God intended and hoped for him.

Well, to know how our children thrive, we have to understand how God created them.  God gives us clues about what our children need, clues that are written into creation itself — including our children’s own bodies.   As attachment scientists tell us, children are most likely to thrive physically, cognitively, and psychologically when they enjoy a strong and loving attachment to their parents.   But why?  What’s the big deal about attachment? This is the question I explored with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life last Thursday, December 6th.

What is attachment? 

Simply put, attachment is the emotional bond between a parent and child. It’s established in infancy, but it must be nurtured throughout childhood in order for its benefits to endure.  A securely attached child can lose that security when circumstances change or the parent disappears for some reason – whether physically or emotionally.  When nurtured, this bond continues to deepen into older childhood and the teen years, developing into a strong rapport:  the parents are so in tune with the child that the child feels deeply known and understood.

The more secure the bond and the stronger the rapport, the better for the child.  Children with a secure attachment to their parents tend to do well on several measures:  they choose healthier relationships, they have higher self-esteem, are more creative and curious, and are even more kind and generous.  Children who lack a secure attachment have greater difficulty controlling their emotions and impulses, engage in risky behavior as adolescents and adults, and are drawn into chaotic relationships.

How attachment and rapport occur 

The kind of security we’re talking about occurs when a child’s parents and caregivers respond to her needs and fears with empathy, warmth, and respect, when the child receives generous amounts of affection and playful attention – and when all of this happens consistently and reliably.  That’s a tall order!  Fortunately, children do not need perfect parents to thrive.

I’m trying to underscore the kind of basic emotional atmosphere that permeates our child’s life.  If that emotional atmosphere is generally loving, responsive, and respectful, our child can handle occasional disconnects and our mistakes — even the biggies.  I’ve lived in situations where the general feeling is just bad.  You probably have, too.  In conscious Catholic parenting, we’re talking about creating an emotional atmosphere that is generally positive, supportive, and respectful: you don’t have to create a perfect existence for your child to be a good parent.

The big topic on the Popcaks’ show was generosity, particularly when it’s hard to be generous.  The kind of generosity required by conscious Catholic parenting (which is grounded in attachment theory) is definitely a challenge at times.  But it’s not an all-out give-a-thon. As children get older, generosity is most often about the time it takes to discern what children actually need in that moment.  Lisa made a beautiful point during the show that generosity isn’t about giving for the sake of giving; it’s about working for the good of the other person.

Discerning what is for the good of our child takes wisdom and patience.  If we have a newborn who’s hungry in the middle of the night, we feed her because she really needs the nourishment.  On the other hand, if our five year old child is asking for her fifth class of water after bedtime, she may need some hugs, not water.  She may even need some limit setting.  Generosity in this case would be saying no to more water and tucking our child into bed with a kiss.

Why attachment has such a positive effect on a child

Attachment has four primary functions that explain why it’s so critical to our child’s optimal development.  First, it gives a child a sense of emotional safety.  When parents treat their children with respect and take their needs and fears seriously, children know they are safe and can get on with living rather than merely surviving in a frozen state of hyper-awareness.

Second, when children are securely attached to their parents, the parent becomes a secure base from which children move out to explore their environments.  They have an easier time pressing on toward new stages of development.  A parent’s love is like a bridge helping the child cross to new stages of growth, including spiritual growth.

Third, securely attached children gain internal control as they get older.  When a parent responds to her child calmly and warmly when the child is in distress, the child eventually internalizes this comfort and is able to self-soothe even when the parent isn’t around.

Fourth, securely attached children are more effective communicators because they’ve been permitted to express their emotions, both positive and negative emotions.  Real people have feelings.  All sorts.  Children who are not punished or shamed for their emotions learn eventually how to express them appropriately.

God is present and active in our parenting. 

What parent doesn’t want what I hoped for Aidan when he was an infant?  There’s something present in all parents when our children are born, something imprinted upon our souls, urging us to look beyond today, to think beyond meeting our child’s basic physical needs.  We turn inward, recognizing on some level the promises of God within our hearts, promises that direct our eyes toward the everlasting hills. This isn’t all I hope for you, he’s saying, I promise you freedom from darkness; I will heal your broken heart; I will draw you closer to me.  Come.

We want that for our babies:  the promise of freedom, joy, safety, and union.  Even if we’re too tired, broken, or confused to recognize why we’re searching for something more for our children, something more than we had, something more than we’ve been giving them, God’s invitation is there, urging us to a beautiful life with our children.

Understanding attachment is key to Godly parenting because it provides a piece of the road map as we guide our children toward those everlasting hills.  Let’s move.

Image Credit:  Allison Saathoff

Negotiating with Our Children

Negotiating is part of everyday life whether we like it or not.  Married couples negotiate, religious leaders negotiate, school boards negotiate, diplomats negotiate.  But should we negotiate with our kids? Shouldn’t we just lay down the law and expect compliance, or will there be times when wise parenting can include compromise? 

I talked about this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life yesterday (October 25th).  You can listen to the archived show here.  Every time I’ve been a guest on the Popcaks’ show I learn something about the very topic I’ve been invited to talk about.  The program was about compromising in general (not just with kids).  The Popcaks pointed about that negotiating isn’t about two people becoming equally miserable; it’s about putting people before our own agenda.  As Christians, we always want to take care of the needs of others, including those we’re having a tough time with in the moment.  By extending our hand and our heart, we can really reach a solution that makes everyone feel respected, and in this way negotiating actually builds trust and rapport between family members.

Wise parenting can include negotiating with our children

Some parents think they should never negotiate with their kids because it’s their job as the parent to lay down the law.  They may be concerned that opening the door to negotiating would just lead to endless arguments with their kids.  But you can be a wise leader and still include others in leadership decisions.

Including our children in some decision making or permitting them to voice their opinions and feelings about these decisions doesn’t mean we’re wimpy parents or that we’re surrending control to our kids.

By allowing our child to engage in negotiations with us under certain circumstances, we give them practice in an important life skill. Practicing negotiating and compromising teaches children empathy and fairness, how to resolve conflict constructively, and how to be humble enough to include the needs and feelings of others in their decisions.  Negotiating isn’t about winning a battle or defeating an adversary.  We’re not talking about engaging in a debate.  We’re talking about a meeting of minds.  Especially in a Christian home, negotiating must include love, patience, and lots of listening.

How to negotiate

No matter the context, successful negotiating involves a similar process:

  • Identifying the real problem
  • Identifying the needs of both parties,
  • Brainstorming solutions that meet the needs of both parties,
  • Agreeing on the solution,
  • Implementing the agreement.

Sometimes this process will be quite automatic and informal.  When we’re talking over what we’ll have for dinner or which movie we might want to see as a family, we’ll probably just throw out ideas and try to respect one another’s opinions.

At other times, this negotiating process can become quite formal; you can even create a contract with your child outlining your agreement.  For instance, if you and your teenager negotiate over her weekend curfew, she may point out that if her curfew is at 10, then she  misses the end of most movies at the theater.  You might express your concern for her safety when she is out late and about whether she’ll be able to get up on time for Mass the next morning.  After discussing various options for meeting the needs of both sides, the parties may decide to try out an occasional extended curfew to 11 when the teen is seeing a movie, but only if the parents pick her up from the theater and only if she is able to get up and attend Mass.

Obviously the topics and manner of negotiation depend on the age & maturity of  your child.  We wouldn’t be open to negotiating with our 10 year old daughter about whether she can have a boyfriend, but perhaps our 16 year old.  (I have a 9 year old and 2 year old daughter.  Just typing that sentence made my stomach turn!) We would not expect our 5 year old to give us a clear rational reason for why she doesn’t want to take out the garbage anymore – we use the negotiating process to teach her about this skill and to build her confidence in expressing her thoughts and feelings.

What’s on the table?

Although I’m a mom who’s willing to negotiate or compromise with my children when they express themselves respectfully and clearly, I personally limit what I’m open to compromising about.  I would be open to discussing and compromising over the following topics:

  • Chores: who does what, when they are done.
  • Commitments:  how our family spends our time (vacations, Christmas plans, birthdays, etc.)
  • Money:  allowances and family purchases
  • Dress & hair: my teenager is a boy and doesn’t currently care about what he’s wearing, but I would be open to compromising over fashion and haircuts, knowing this is just a way teens express themselves and try on identities.  However, I would place provocative, morbid, or anti-Christian dress in the morality category below and wouldn’t be willing to compromise about that type of attire.
  • New rules & boundaries: Clear rules and boundaries are important for a child’s sense of security.  However, at family meetings we can include our children’s input about rules that don’t seem to be working for some reason or if boundaries need to be clarified.  When we talk with our children about the reasons for the rules, they are more likely to internalize and respect them especially if they’ve been part of the rule-making process.

Some topics are non-negotiable in our home, so Philip and I just announce the rules and enforce them:

  • Agreed upon rules:  While some rules can be negotiable, I think we should avoid negotiating rules outside family meeting time.  Otherwise you risk endless debates about whether the kids will take out the garbage now or later, or whether bedtime is 8:00 or 8:15. Obviously there will be exceptions to this “rule”, but if you allow negotiating over rules 24 hours a day, you’ll end up on the wrong side of the proverbial deep end
  • Safety & health:  For example, yelling and hitting are unsafe and emotionally damaging, so we can make a clear prohibition against this behavior.
  • Morals & ethics:  For example, we would never permit our child to cheat on an exam.

This list is a work in progress.  My children teach me every day about their ability to give and take, and to participate in family discussions.  I find negotiating and even debating with my teenage son quite exhilirating!.  He presents his viewpoints very clearly and reasonably.  I’ve noticed that he really wants to come to an agreement.  I think because he trusts us and feels respected, he knows we’re not out to get him when we say “Let’s talk about it.”

What if you and your child can’t agree?

Well, goodness, that would never happen, right?  If I can’t agree on a solution with my child, I will delay the decision or make the decision myself.  The point of negotiating with your child is to give them practice in negotiation and empathic communication, and to show them that you respect and understand their point of view.  An invitation to engage your child’s ideas and opinions accomplishes this goal when you extend these invitations consistently, even if sometimes you can’t come up with a perfect solution.  The process gives your child more benefit than the actual outcome.

Little Leavings

Kim’s son Aidan in NYC

This week I really felt like the parent of a teenager.

My 13 year-old son Aidan received an invitation from his aunt (Philip’s sister) to visit her for a week in New York City.  He would fly alone and spend the week seeing the sites with Auntie Anita, her husband, and their baby boy.  What an opportunity!  He was so excited and intrigued:  He could talk of little else from the time we told him about the invitation until the morning he left.  He’s an aviation buff, so I wasn’t sure if he was more excited about the plane ride or seeing New York City!

This wasn’t’ the first time he’d traveled alone.  When he was 9, he flew as an unaccompanied minor to visit his Great Aunt in northern Minnesota in December.  That’s right: a California boy in the heart of Minnesota in the winter.  (He was actually born in Boston but doesn’t remember much of his years there.)  My aunt and her husband own a home on a lake surrounded by woods:  very different from our California suburban existence.   We believed and hoped the Minnesota adventure would be a great experience for him.  He had a week of sledding, ice fishing, and bonding with second cousins.  However, looking back Philip and I think he was a little young to have gone alone that week.  He still needed some intensive parenting from us across the miles.

The first night he was there, he was frightened and phoned us on the cellphone (which we’d given him “just in case”) several times in the middle of the night crying.  Everyone was sleeping and the house was dark.  He didn’t feel comfortable, he was confused, and he didn’t want to be there.  Things improved each day and by the last few days he was enjoying himself.  On the plane flight home he choked on a piece of hard candy.  He was talking about how scared he was over the choking incident for several days afterward.  It must have been very scary indeed to feel vulnerable already on a big airplane alone and then to find himself at the mercy of a lump of candy lodged in his throat with no mom or dad around to help him.

Fast forward 4 years and off Aidan went on a giant airliner — as a regular passenger not as a minor — headed for one of the most overwhelming cities on the planet.  What a difference.  My boy had a wonderful time on his trip to New York City.  He phoned us every night to tell us what he had done during the day and sent us photos of himself visiting the popular sites – the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Concorde, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and more.  He had a ball.

He wanted our advice about practical things:  how to handle a problem with the prepaid credit card we gave him, what to do about a rash on his neck, what he should wear on the plane flight home, and that sort of thing.  But he didn’t need the kind of emotional support and encouragement he needed to get through his week in Minnesota.  Our involvement this week wasn’t about helping him survive a difficult separation from us.  It was about listening attentively while he shared his joy and enthusiasm, helping him navigate small bumps, encouraging his capability, and reminding him of our love and support across the miles.

He demonstrated a level of confidence and competence that, quite frankly, caught me off guard.  My baby is really growing up.   I found myself feeling a little blue for the first few days after he left, not just because I missed him, but because the evidence was mounting that my darling boy is beginning to find his own footing.  My role as his mother is changing.  I realize I need to grow into my role as the mom of a teen just he needs to grow into his big feet and hands.  I recognize that our children are moving toward greater independence from the day they can crawl (even earlier).  But Aidan’s self-assurance on this trip drove home for me that he’s beginning his journey toward adulthood, preparing himself for the destiny God has planned for him apart from me.

“Boy Jesus in the Temple” by Adriaen van Der Werff

During the week I thought of the Gospel account of the boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2: 41-52).  When he was 12 years old, Jesus became separated from his family during a caravan trip to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover.  Frantic, his parents went searching for him.  Like any human parents, Mary and Joseph must have been sick with worry, wondering what had happened to their boy.  After 3 days they “found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”

Jesus wasn’t anxious or frightened; He didn’t turn himself into the Passover lost and found.  In fact, in the Temple the people who heard him speak were “astounded at his understanding and his answers.”  Luke 2:47.  At last reunited with her son, Mary said the same thing just about any mom would say:  “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”  Luke 2:48.  Jesus responded: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Another translation is: “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s work? “

In both translations, Jesus is asserting his divine sonship and holy destiny.  He’s letting Mary know that the time will come when he’ll have to set aside his family ties in order to attend to God’s plan for him.  Mary was obedient to her Father, too.  She didn’t grab her son by the ear and say,” Is that right, Mr. Smarty-Pants?!  Just wait ‘til I get you home. I’ll teach you never to scare me again!”  Jesus left the temple with his parents and “his mother kept all these things her heart”.  It would be many years before Christ’s public ministry would begin, but this Little Leaving was a signal to Mary that Jesus’ Moment in History was coming.

Aidan has many years to go before he’s ready to leave home, and he’ll continue to need guidance and love as he gains spiritual power and wisdom.  But for the first time I have glimpsed that day.  Aidan’s moment will come:  the moment when he realizes his vocation and when he decides how he will respond to God’s unique call for him.  This week was just a Little Leaving, but there will come a day when I’ll release him to his future, to go about his Father’s work.

I will let go.  I will let go not because I want to, but because I have to, because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s my own Yes to God, because it’s part of my journey in my vocation as a mother.  When I think I can’t bear it, I’ll have our Blessed Mother to help me.  She truly understands the suffering of parents as they release a child to his or her destiny, mission, and even to a cross.

Aidan is home now.  He had a tremendous adventure that he’ll never forget.  When I picked him at the airport I tried to play it cool so my mom-ness wouldn’t freak him out, but I think I cracked his back for him when I hugged him.  We had dinner before we headed home.  At one point during dinner he said, “I’d like to take another plane trip soon, but next time I want the whole family to go.”

This says a lot, doesn’t it?  He is finding his footing, moving toward independence, but he still loves us, still appreciates us, and still feels connected to us.  For now, he still needs us, though perhaps in a different way from his youth.  Oh, my heart is so very glad!