Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Five Cures for Common "Problems" with our Teens

As a long time principal and now president working in a Catholic high school, one of my unwritten responsibilities is to serve as a repository of good advice from parents, so that I may share this wisdom with other parents. In my 21 years here, these are the 5 best "cures"to common teenage problems I have heard from other parents:

1) The "My teen is always on the telephone" problem.

A parent once described the telephone as the "teenage umbilical cord", and indeed, the telephone is often more a distraction from homework than the TV. Also, there is nothing like calling your spouse at night and getting a consistent busy signal to stoke family frustrations!

"Not a problem", a parent told me once. "We got rid of all the cordless phones in our house, and placed our only phone in the family room. You'd be amazed how much shorter those conversations are between friends when they must be done in public." As a variation of that theme, another parent told me his rule was the cordless phones could never leave the family room after 6 P.M. If they did, the father would simply hit the "page/find" button over and over until finally his exasperated daughter would return the phone to its rightful home.

And cell phones? Ahh, there's the rub. One family I know has a designated spot in the house where all cell phones must be charged, and it's required that on school nights, they are all being charged by 9 p.m.

2) The "I'm going to my friend's house to spend the night" shell game.

Ask your teenage son in a more honest moment and he will tell you the best way to do things without you knowing is to play a kind of shell game: He says he is going to a friend's house, his friend tells his parents he is going to your home, and together they go do whatever they want for the evening.

Suspecting this, you'd like to confirm the arrangements with the other parents and make sure things are properly supervised, but you are worried that the other parents might take your call the wrong way and that your teen may resent you don't trust him.

A wise mother I once met had the solution: "I always called the other parents and asked them if my daughter could help out by bringing something with her, like some chips or drinks. By their response I would learn everything I needed to know." "After all", she smiled, "Who could be offended by an offer of generosity?"

3) The "My teen drives me so crazy fussing about chores that it's easier to do them myself" dilemma.

This one speaks for itself. But one father of 3 teenagers licked the problem by doing something very simple.

Every Sunday night he would list the chores he expected his children to accomplish over the course of the next 5 days after school, on the family bulletin board.

If the chores were not done by Friday afternoon, all "weekend activities" would be forfeited. How did he limit the whining? At the bottom of the list of chores, big and bold, were additional chores for those who whined or complained. "What really gets to my kids" this father commented, "is when they think I'm making up chores as I go along, in a kind of ad hoc fashion. Putting things in writing in advance creates the sense that chores are a matter of routine family responsibilities.

4) The "I don't have any homework" dilemma.

It's amazing that even though your child "doesn't have any homework" night after night, his teachers tell you he "isn't doing his homework" at report card time.

The problem for parents is you don't know, one night to the next, whether your children REALLY DON'T have homework or if they are just avoiding work. They hold all the cards.

Again, one family seemed to have the solution. "Every night at 8 P.M. the rule in our house is that our kids must be at the dining room table doing their homework until 9 P.M. minimum. It doesn't matter to us whether our kids tell us "they don't have any". They must still be at the table either doing their homework, or looking blankly at the desk for one hour. Those are the only two choices. Given the sheer boredom of doing nothing, even Algebra becomes interesting, and we've found that they begin to "discover" work they didn't know they had. And if the phone rings for our kids, we tell them our children have previous appointments and to call back at 9."

"Why the dining room and not the bedroom?" I asked. "There are too many distractions to pass the time in the bedroom" said these parents, "magazines, pictures of boyfriends, stereos, whatever. Also, we found the dining room is better because we can 'check up' on our kids without appearing to do so, as we do dishes in the nearby kitchen, for example. Our kids hated for us to peer into their bedroom to see if homework was being done, so we simply removed that problem."

5) "My child hates to read" syndrome.

Experts will tell you that your child's reading ability will be the most important indicator of his or her future academic success. But how do you breed a love of reading?

One mother I knew did two important things. First, when her children were younger, she made it part of her regular weekly routine to go to the library twice a week and check out books, which she read to her younger children each night. Younger children love to be read to by their parents!

Second, when her children became younger teens, she would continue to go to the library, but instead of reading out loud, she would give her children two choices: Either they went to bed at 10 P.M. lights out, no exceptions, or they could go to bed at 10 P.M. and read for one hour. Given that choice, her children became avid readers throughout their teenage years.

Final thoughts:

Five years ago I remember asking a mother of five girls, on the occasion of her last daughter's graduation, what she had learned about raising teenagers after all those years of doing so. I'll never forget her response. She thought for a moment, then said, "Well, teenagers are like bucking broncos. If they think you are trying to ride them, they'll buck you every time. So the best thing is to build fences which lead them in the right direction. Then they think that they're the ones making the decisions as they trot along. "

Amen. May all of us become good fence-builders!


Dave Sheldon said...

Great Ideas!

LorMarie said...

Your post contains an important reminder for me. "Students are children of God." In my 8 years of full-time teaching, I never gave much thought to that fact. It puts things in the proper perspective for me.