This time last year, I was heading off to a big, new place: high school. I knew then that it was going to be a challenge for me and my parents. So many things would be different, from teachers, classes and friends to my responsibilities and my parents’ expectations. Now, with a full year of high school behind me, I would like to give my perspective on what parents can do to help their kids with this transition. (Read more)
Aside from my obvious pride in her efforts to get her writing published, I also realize that her words offer her dad and I some insight into how she works. Some takeaways from her advice:
Parents, stop talking so much. Give our kids more space. Instead, put more effort into sympathetic listening.
Give our kids some more space. They need to make some mistakes to learn important life lessons.
Recognize that different kids handle things differently. Some may need more guidance and involvement than others. Respect their temperaments.
The back-to-school countdown in our house starts about two weeks before the first day of school.
This is roughly when the schools send out their information about class lists, hot lunch programs and school supplies. It’s usually a week or two after our annual mid-summer camping trip, and once we’ve finished washing, folding and putting away all those items, my mind begins to drift forward to the next set of looming responsibilities.
We try very, very hard not to let the impending start of school ruin the last bit of summer, but it can be hard. Our main strategy is to plan some really fun, special activities with friends, like amusement parks or waterslides. Trips to the farmer’s market. Dinner in Chinatown. Also some sleeping in, lazing around in pyjamas and swimming in the lake after dark.
Now that my older girls are preteens, I also make a real effort to get in some one-on-one time with them. When you have more than one child, it’s so easy to group them into neat categories. I often pair the twins together, because they are so easy-going and can seem very similar in their likes and dislikes. But they have very distinct personalities despite their identical genetic profiles, and really need to have that uniqueness validated. And my youngest assumes the role of the family fireball, grabbing the spotlight and thriving in it, but she is also so much more than that, and has different relationships with each of her sisters.
When you’re parenting, the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. We need to see past the labels, the thumbnail summaries, the established patterns.
This week I’ve taken advantage of the August downtime to host an 80’s teen film festival with a couple of their friends. First they watched Sixteen Candles, then The Breakfast Club. Since they are so enthusiastic, I’ve got Say Anything for tonight (“Mom, why is he holding that huge box radio over his head?” Try and explain ghetto blasters to the iPod generation!).
The reason I’m mentioning this is that I was once again by struck by that resonant line of narration from The Breakfast Club, “We think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”
The lovely twist to that film, of course, was that the characters (the jock, the brain, the criminal, the princess, the basket case) come to realize they saw themselves and each other that way as well, exactly like the adults who just don’t get it. In that one magic day of detention, they learn that they each have a bit of each other in themselves.
People are complicated. Multifaceted. It may not seem like rocket science, but this is one of the bigger revelations of growing up and it’s a familiar theme in young adult fiction of all kinds.
Seeing this movie again made me think about how hard we need to try to see beyond the labels. Especially in preteens and teens who are growing and changing every day, who struggle to see themselves as simultaneously similar to everyone else and unique individuals. We need to give them room to surprise us, to defy expectations, to be anomalies, contradictions. To try on different hats.
In these stories (and many other kinds of YA fiction), adults are generally depicted as one-dimensional, disconnected characters, incapable of comprehending the angst and emotional turmoil of the teens around them. They are stuck in their own adult funks, driven by their own agendas and the teens need to figure everything out on their own. Makes me think of incoherent voices of all the grown-ups in the Charlie Brown cartoons. I understand how this is a convenient plot device, and I also get why this disconnect would resonate with teens, but I see it as a challenge to go beyond. We need to work very hard to maintain that dialogue with our kids. Leave our agendas aside as much as possible. Listen instead of lecturing.
So in the last few days of summer, I’m going to spend as much time as possible with each of my three girls one-on-one, letting them pick the activities and drive the conversation. As they head off to start their own high school memories with friends they haven’t yet met, I’m going to challenge myself — and them — to look beyond the surface and let them talk about whatever crosses their minds.
As challenges go, this one is also a privilege. I’m really looking forward to it.
Two nights ago my twin daughters, along with 46 classmates, graduated from their elementary school. The occasion involved a morning service, with breakfast for families, along with an evening program of graduate speeches (in which each kid had their own 45-second speech presented in three languages), handing out of diplomas, dinner and dancing.
A full day of celebration, an emotional, full-pack-of-Kleenex affair for a sentimental person like me. Our babies had grown so much and so far, and damned if we weren’t going to mark it properly.
Now I’ve had six graduations of my own over the years, and I can tell you that none were as involved and exhaustively detailed as this ceremony sending 11 and 12-year-olds off to high school.
That being said, there is something particularly momentous about the move from primary to secondary school, especially here in Canada where we don’t have middle schools. In some ways, it is probably a bigger deal than going from high school to college. They are leaving the institution they entered as baby-faced four-year-olds, moving on in awkward new bodies to schools where they will now be the youngest. They may have 12-year-old minds and accumulated good judgment, but some will already look 16. Or even 18.
The range of issues they will contend with will be bigger, with more serious consequences for poor judgment. They will be expected to assume responsibility for their own actions, solve their own problems, make their own important decisions. They will be tempted by new influences, by cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and sexual activities. They will reach the age of medical consent (14 in most cases in Quebec, 16 in most other provinces), and the age of sexual consent (16 across Canada, between 16 and 18 across the U.S.). They will be allowed to drive cars, vote and join the military.
It’s one of the trite sayings of parenthood that little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems. When you have a six-year-old who isn’t yet reading, or a seven-year-old who has no friends, this seems to ignore the gut-wrenching worry parents may experience. But it makes sense, because it takes into account the consequences of these problems: the six-year-old (most of the time) will be seen to by parents, teachers and resource personnel who can make his problem go away, and the seven-year-old will most likely (sometimes with supervision) find her counterpart somewhere in the schoolyard. But the fifteen-year-old who decides to try ecstasy or heroin “just once” may end up in a downward spiral of legal, medical, social and academic problems that can haunt him for a lifetime.
The last unit my daughters’ amazing English teacher, Stacey, taught this group of grade 6’ers before the end of the year was on drug awareness. They read the controversial, classic novel Go Ask Alice, did multimedia presentations on common drugs, had powerful visits from some rehabilitated teenage drug addicts doing community service and, separately, from two wonderful police officers. In her graduation speech to the class and their families last night, she reminded them, as they headed off on the next exciting chapter of their young lives, to ask with each new opportunity, each difficult decision, “Does this fit in with who I am?”
I thought this was brilliant. This simple sentence crystallizes exactly what we want our children to learn. It asks them to listen to that emerging inner voice, the collective wisdom of one’s experiences, advice from parents and teachers. The voice we all have, and sometimes — often to our own detriment — ignore (that second slice of pizza, that third martini, that guy at the party…). It encourages our kids to think about who they want to be, what core values they want to espouse. It evokes the family and communities that help flesh out our identities. It means respecting yourself.
I know plenty of adults who might want to keep this important question handy as they go about their daily lives.
So for all the graduates out there (and parents of graduates), whether moving from middle school to high school, university to grad school or even considering making a leap from an unsatisfying job, consider keeping that question filed away, but close enough at hand for quick reference:”Does this fit in with who I am?”
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
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