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Helping Kids Thrive in Middle School or High School: Parenting through Opportunity and Challenge

girl looking into cameraSo much is changing all at once for teenagers—their bodies, feelings, brains, perspectives, identities, relationships with others, and more. During early adolescence most kids begin to spend more time with friends than with family. They can appear to reject their parents’ values, and seem not to need or want much by way of their parents’ time and attention.

Early adolescence (11-14) is a time of vulnerability and possibility, and whether they realize it or not, young people need their parents as much as they did as toddlers. Kids are moving toward independence, but parents still have an enormous role making sure they are safe, and increasing their chances of creating happily productive adult lives for themselves. Here are ten suggestions to help your teenager flourish:

  1. Be available. The transition to middle school or high school can be tricky, and your child may need more reassurance than usual. Be available to listen, spend time together, provide quietly invisible support, or actively engage in addressing his concerns.
  2. Establish and enforce reasonable guidelines. This is a period when your child’s ego is fragile. Treat her with respect and understanding, but also be ready to stay firm, and keep her safe if she goes off the rails.
  3. Yield control. You can avoid power struggles by allowing your tween or teenager to make as many decisions as possible. Unless you anticipate serious long-term consequences of an impending decision, provide guidance only as requested.
  4. Allow your child to suffer the natural consequences of his actions. This can be hard for parents, but is essential if you want him to grow into a responsible, competent, confident adult. For example, accept that he’ll fail a course if he doesn’t do his homework.
  5. Support her developing intelligences. Middle school is a time of rapidly changing, often confusing, and steadily escalating intellectual, social, emotional, and sexual demands. Encourage your teen to process her experiences with others, and help her make sense of what’s happening. Be alert to the possibility of bullying, whether online or in the real world.
  6. Help your child develop good coping strategies. Be honest about what works for you, and what doesn’t. Help your child identify when he’s feeling stressed, and chat about options he might find useful for dealing with his stressors.
  7. Make time for physical exercise and outdoor activities. Exercise and time outdoors are two of the most valuable tools for physical and psychological health. Encourage your young person to integrate these into her schedule.
  8. Support extracurricular interests. Whether it’s music, public speaking, volunteering in the community, athletics, or something else, pursuing an interest can provide excellent opportunities for developing competence and confidence.
  9. Help your child find balance. Be a positive role model, and support your child in establishing better habits concerning sleep, nutrition, recreational activities, and social media.
  10. Be a thoughtful advocate. The more your teenager can take on her own advocacy role, the better. Allow her to solve the problems she can, but be ready to work together to resolve troubling situations at school, home, or elsewhere.

We address all of these ideas in detail in Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids (House of Anansi, 2014), as well as in our blogs and published articles. See www.beyondintelligence.net

And for additional information:

Inside Your Teenager’s Scary Brain, by Tamsin McMahon (Maclean’s, January 4, 2015)

Age of Opportunity: Lessons Learned from the New Science of Adolescence, by Laurence Steinberg

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, by Jessica Lahey

Kids Now  A Canadian organization offering extracurricular skill-building programs for students in middle schools.

teen on screens

Stop Worrying! Six Reasons to Get Over The Amount of Time Your Teenager Spends on Screens

A guest blog by Amy Poeppel

teen on screensThere’s no opting out of technology anymore. Despite our nostalgia, determination, and occasional self-righteousness, we are faced with the fact that computers, cell phones, and tablets are as much a part of our lives as food, underwear, and indoor plumbing. When I worked in the admissions department of a NYC private school, I encountered many parents who wanted to make technology nonexistent or at least inconsequential in the lives of their kids, but I never understood how that could work.

One morning I had an interview with an 11-year old boy who was completely screen-deprived. His parents were convinced that computers, and especially video games, are damaging to developing minds, so they kept their young son away from screens entirely. They believed in old-fashioned, wholesome fun – fresh air, board games, and books. Maybe they’re right, but what I saw was a kid so obsessed with computers, that I couldn’t conduct a constructive interview with him. All he wanted to talk about, literally all, was access to computers at our school.  Read more

rsz teens on phones

Parenting Teenagers: Build community; Go online; Play video games; Chat online; Learn to manage emotions

rsz teens on phones

When kids reach adolescence, parents are most likely to feel vulnerable and insecure about their parenting, and divorce rates are at their highest. It’s important to listen to teenagers, and respect their opinions and ideas about their lives. One of the challenges for parents is incorporating teens’ opinions about what they need into their own ideas about what the kids actually need. Research can help in that process, but how can parents sift through the research to find out what’s useful?

Marilyn Price-Mitchell is a psychologist who translates research on adolescent development into parenting (and educational) practice. In a blog for Psychology Today, she pulled together the five studies of 2013 that she thought most important to bring to parents’ and teachers’ attention. Read more

which_book

What Comes After High School?

which_bookSome kids—no matter their ability level—need gap years, time away from formal education after high school. They might want to consider options, opportunities, and interests they haven’t had time to explore during high school. Others need time to think seriously about what they want to do next in their lives. Others feel a need to recover from the previous twelve or fourteen years at school. Others need to take care of more urgent priorities, like a sick parent or grandparent. And some kids need to make some money to pay for their higher education. Read more

library

More School Is Not the Only Answer!

libraryEven the best students are arriving at university unprepared to do well there. ‘Top Students, Too, Are Not Always Ready for College’ is the title of an article in today’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. In thinking about this problem, the author—the Executive Director of Johns Hopkins’ prestigious Center for Talented Youth—argues for changes at the high school level that will engage kids’ minds and intellectual passions, and develop the habits of mind that lead to academic success in higher education. Read more

All Kids Can Thrive: A Call to Action

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York; October, 2012.

 

There’s a good reason that everyone is talking about this book. It’s an unflinchingly honest look at the failings of a society where too many children are growing up without the tools they need to create meaningful and fulfilling lives for themselves. As Tough writes, ‘The biggest obstacles to academic success that poor children, especially very poor children, often face [are] a home and a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage that stress.’ (p. 195)

And it’s not just poor kids who have problems due to high levels of stress and insecure relationships with their parents. Tough also reviews research on kids who grow up in affluent families and communities, and offers some startling conclusions. Simply put, rich kids have many of the same problems as those experienced by poor kids. Both groups are more likely than middle class kids to experience low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism, and minimal afterschool supervision. Furthermore, wealthy kids have higher levels of anxiety and depression, especially in adolescence. Reviewing the findings, Tough writes, ‘The emotional disconnection that existed between many affluent parents and their children often meant that the parents were unusually indulgent of their children’s bad behavior.’ (p. 83)

In spite of Tough’s dire analyses of how bad things are for far too many children in far too many communities, How Children Succeed is one of the most encouraging books I have read on this topic. He weaves thoughtful stories of real children, teenagers, and adults into current research findings on child development and resiliency, coming up with recommendations that promise to transform society if we pay attention to them.

He describes research on executive function—emotional and cognitive self-regulation, which affects attention, impulsivity, self-soothing, anger management and other skills involved in coping with stress and challenge. These are skills that children growing up in poverty are a lot less likely to have. ‘The reason researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive function,’ he writes, ‘is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills…If we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way.’ (p. 21)

Environmental risks like family turmoil, chaos, and crowding have a big impact on measures of children’s stress, but only when mothers are inattentive or unresponsive: ‘High quality mothering, in other words, can act as a powerful buffer against the damage that adversity inflicts on a child’s stress-response system…Good parenting—being helpful and attentive in a game of Jenga—can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects.’ (p. 32) Tough concludes that parents’ responding sensitively to infants’ cues has a long-lasting effect on children’s prospects, leading them to be more curious, self-reliant, self-confident, calm, and better able to deal with obstacles.

Although ‘character’ means different things to different people, there are several qualities that can be thought of collectively as ‘character’ that have been shown both to be important to success and well-being, and also teachable: bravery, fairness, integrity, humour, zest, appreciation of beauty, social intelligence, kindness, and gratitude. Tough reviews successful attempts to teach these qualities—not as ways to impose middle class ideas of morality, but rather as ways for all kids to experience personal growth, achievement, and fulfillment.

Parental warmth and nurturance are the most important factors leading to infants and young children thriving. Later on, as children enter adolescence, one person who takes them seriously, believes in their abilities, and challenges them consistently to improve themselves, can make all the difference.

Tough concludes that ‘The most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well… First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two.’ (p. 182)

As a child gets older, Tough continues, he needs ‘more than love and hugs. He also need[s] discipline, rules, limits, someone to say no. And what he need[s] more than anything is some child-size adversity, a chance to fall down and get back up on his own, without help.’ (p. 183) Children need support in learning how to manage failure, and in order to do that, they need to experience failures they can cope with. This is what Carol Dweck writes about in Mindset: kids need to learn how to see failures and setbacks as opportunities to learn.

It’s also, in some ways, what Amy Chua writes about in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. An important difference between Tough’s recommendations and Chua’s description of her own parenting is that Tough emphasizes the importance of support, warmth, security, and nurturing. I think their goals are probably similar, though, that kids build their self-confidence on a solid foundation of achievement rather than the shifting sands of other people’s opinions or attention.

Tough’s recommendations for going forward are radical, but doable. He says we need a coordinated system that might start with comprehensive pediatric wellness centers like Nadine Burke Harris has established in Bayview-Hunters Point, in San Francisco. We might continue with parenting interventions that help parents establish secure connections with their infants. We might implement early childhood education  programs that have shown dramatic positive results. We also need to provide supports at school and outside of school for kids as they move into adolescence, as well as the adults in their lives. Science demonstrates that society can make a difference to kids’ outcomes. This book provides a call to action for thinking about how to do that.

 

Links

http://www.paultough.com/the-books/how-children-succeed/

http://nadineburke.com/users/dr-nadine-burke-harris

 

 

 

Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

I loved Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I read it only because two reviewers have compared my work with Joanne Foster to it. One described our work as an ‘antidote to the Tiger Mother’; the other commented that we provide a good balance between the Tiger Mother approach and laissez-faire parenting. We write about how parents can instill the good habits of mind that lead to high-level achievement over time—Amy Chua’s focus—while respecting their children’s individuality and nurturing their independence—which she decries as Western nonsense, at least in the first 3/4 of her book.

I loved the tongue-in-cheek self-deprecating tone of Tiger Mother, and found parts of it amusing, and other parts poignant. I also had the normal Western reactions to the verbal abuse Chua heaped on her daughters, and to the list of rules at the beginning. I was appalled that young children would be subjected to such draconian regimentation—three hours piano practice seven days a week, no free time for play, ridicule for anything less than first place in anything, no permission to participate in school plays or other extracurricular activities, and more. Over the course of the book, though, I came to like Amy Chua and her family. I found it interesting to read about their attempts to resolve the seemingly-impossible conflicts between the absolute brutal authority of a Chinese Tiger mother, and the kind, caring parenting of a Western Jewish father, in the context of a liberal American culture. Daughters Sophia and Lulu came through as wonderful personalities in their own right, making large contributions (eventually) to Chua’s development as a parent.

Chua is clear at the beginning of the book that there are lots of non-Chinese people, including many Westerners, who implement what she calls Chinese parenting practices, as well as some Chinese parents (mostly 2nd generation, and living in the United States, she says) who parent in what she terms Western ways.

Although not Chinese, I was born in the year of the Tiger myself, and admire Chua’s commitment to her children gaining self-respect and confidence through hard work and achievement, rather than hollow platitudes and praise. I also like her focus on perseverance, practice, and accomplishment, and agree with her that those are the most satisfying and self-esteem-building goals in the long run. I don’t like her attitude, however, that free play is a waste of time, her lack of respect for children’s individuality, and her disregard for children’s need to discover for themselves what it is they want to invest their time in. I found her status consciousness deeply troubling, including her belief that top-level prizes and awards matter so terribly much, and that anything other than Ivy League acceptance is embarrassing.

Chua makes some good observations about the differences between Western and Chinese parenting. For example, she writes “Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

These are not mutually exclusive values and attitudes, however. It’s quite possible to respect children’s individuality, and also support the development of good work habits. It doesn’t require a whole lot of yelling, pressure, and fighting, either, which (in my opinion) Chua’s home had way too much of. Finding that balance is about parents being flexibly responsive to their children—a concept that Chua would have an impossible time accepting, I suspect—while simultaneously setting age-appropriate rules and boundaries. One thing a parent has to give up if she’s going to achieve this balance is the demand that her children place first in everything the parent values—in Chua’s case that meant all the ‘important’ subjects at school, plus piano and violin, at extraordinarily high levels.

More than anything else, I think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother provides a cautionary tale for high-achieving over-scheduling status-conscious parents. Lulu in particular, with her fierce need to assert her own will, forced her mother to back off, and let her children begin to create and live their own lives. To the extent that this book is about Chua’s growth as a parent, I applaud it.

The Broom Is More Powerful Than the Baseball Bat

August 14, 2011

Late this week, across England, brigades of mostly young people gathered, carrying brooms, in areas where looting had destroyed their neighbours’ shops and homes over the previous few days. The broom brigade came together in the same way that the gangs of looters had come together with baseball bats a few days earlier, using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, to let people know what was happening, and encourage them to get involved.

There’s been a lot of talk in the wake of the looting about the role of parents – should parents be held accountable for their children’s antisocial actions? Should parents be evicted from their community-subsidised housing if their teenagers set fire to a shop, or steal from one?

This turmoil across England, and the ensuing community-minded clean-ups, echo socially disruptive and cohesive activities happening around the world, in the Arab Spring, in China, and elsewhere. They provide an opportunity for parents to think about the values they’re living out themselves, and what they’re teaching their children about a person’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in society. Parents can take this chance to affirm the importance of each of us taking an active part in investing in creating a civil society, especially in times of stress and turmoil.

In response to many requests from parents for advice on how to support their children through troubled times, Joanne and I wrote an article several years ago that has been reprinted several times, in newsletters and other publications around the world, called ‘Troubling Times: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Understand and Confront Adversity.’ In it, we recommend that parents help their children see their own roles in making the world a better place, one manageable step at a time. In short, we recommend that parents show their children by their own example how much more powerful is the broom than the baseball bat.