girl looking into camera

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

Wisdom in Children?

October, 2011

Although wisdom is often associated with later adulthood, its seeds are planted in childhood. The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives. That means taking others’ needs into account, as well as one’s own, and doing that explicitly, sharing the reasoning processes with children.

“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of wisdom in coping successfully with turbulent times, and realising that wisdom is as important for children as it is for adults. Although it is often associated with later adulthood, the seeds of wisdom are planted in childhood. More than ever, now is a time for parents and teachers to help children learn to make calm, reasoned sense of what’s happening around them, and to make wise decisions in their lives. This is always true, of course, but the urgency of thinking and behaving wisely is accentuated in times of stress.

Think, for example, about the British campaign asking citizens to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ during the bombing raids of the second world war. This was an appeal to people’s wisdom, and the collective ability of the British population to respond positively to this message was almost certainly a factor in the outcome of the war.

Practically speaking, what can parents do to support the development of wisdom in their children? Because wisdom is an abstract idea like love or compassion, it’s a good idea to start with what it looks like in practice: ‘Wise people do not look out just for their own interests, nor do they ignore these interests. Rather, they skillfully balance interests of varying kinds, including their own, and [others’]…Wise individuals realize that what may appear to be a prudent course of action in the short term does not necessarily appear so over the long term.’ (from Explorations in Giftedness (2011), by Robert Sternberg, Linda Jarvin, and Elena Grigorenko)

So, we’re back to the question that motivated this blog: how can parents support the development of wisdom in their children? The quote at the top of the blog from Martin Luther King provides a clue: wisdom requires well-developed thinking skills (or intelligence), as well as a strongly developed character. I have addressed elsewhere the ways that parents and teachers can support the development of their children’s intelligence, and focus here on the ‘character’ component of wisdom. This is where Sternberg’s description comes in, suggesting that wisdom includes a focus on skillfully balancing interests of varying kinds, including one’s own as well as others’; and an understanding that one needs to consider the longer term, as well as immediate and short term, effects of a decision or action.

The most important thing that parents can do to support the development of wisdom and character in their children is to model these attributes in their own lives, sharing the reasoning processes with children, as they become able to understand some of the factors that are involved. ‘Others’ here is broadly inclusive, from immediate family members, out through extended family and friendship networks, and community, national, and global interests. That means, for example, thinking about the environmental effects of one’s actions. It means treating others the way one would like to be treated, and also being as good to oneself as one is to others. It means making a habit of asking, ‘What would happen if everyone behaved as I do?’

Modeling wisdom also means thinking about the long term consequences of any behaviour or action, as well as possible immediate and short-term consequences. It might be alright to eat one more chocolate bar right now, but in the longer term, too many decisions like that will prove unwise. The family might be able to afford an expensive holiday this year, but perhaps that will mean depleting resources, and having trouble if the roof starts leaking or the car needs repairs. Sometimes a holiday is badly needed—whether for physical or emotional or family-building reasons –and is the best possible way to spend the family savings. Knowing when it’s a good idea to push the limits, and when it’s a good time to conserve, is where wisdom comes in.

Second to modeling wise decision-making, the most important thing that parents can do is include their children in decision-making processes, as appropriate to the child’s age and abilities. This is best if it starts small and personal – should Maria do her homework when she gets home from school, for example, or can she wait until after dinner? By the time a child becomes a teenager, decisions are getting more complex and have bigger consequences, so it’s great if some wisdom has already been acquired. Because children of eleven through fourteen are going through extraordinary internal and external changes, they go through a stage when they may appear to have lost any wisdom they’d already gained, so it’s important that they’ve already consolidated some basics of wise decision-making before that.

Raising kids who are not only smart, but who are also wise enough to make the decisions that will lead to a sense of fulfillment and happiness across the life span, is a serious challenge faced by all parents. This is the challenge that Joanne Foster and I address in our work together, most explicitly in Raising Smarter Kids. We write there about what we think parents’ ultimate goals for their children should be. This includes a feeling of well-being, and, ideally, happiness. Integrity. The recognition that change and challenge can be good. The ability to welcome adversity, and to cultivate resilience in the face of hardship. The ability to think, communicate, and act coherently, responsibly, creatively, and decisively. A collaborative spirit. Ample capacity for fun and relaxation. And, a lifelong love of learning, fueled by a calm, self-assured motivation and drive. Wisdom, in other words.

As with creativity and intelligence, parents have a much larger role in their children acquiring wisdom than many realize. Parents can make a difference by providing the kinds of environments, challenges, role models, and social supports that increase the likelihood of their children making wise decisions, both in the short term, and in the longer term.

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.