Big Hands I Know You’re the One

When I’m a walking I strut my stuff
And I’m so strung out
I’m high as a kite
I just might
Stop and check you out
-Violent Femmes

Our parents were worried about us when we were teenagers. And if you got the reference alluded to in the title of this post your parents had every right to be.

Our parents’ parents were worried about them when they were teenagers, and the naughty influence of Elvis Prestley, John Lennon, or the Rolling Stones, depending on the era and what was seen as dangerous (hips, trips, or lips). They had every right to be.

This consistent concern makes sense; we remember what it was like to be a teenager and heaven knows we should be worried about these not-yet-adult-humans who are living in our house. We don’t understand everything, we’ll admit it (who is Megan Thee Stallion?), but we know enough to know that we really ought to be worried. 

Have you heard their music? 

To be honest, probably no more than our parents really heard ours.

But beyond rock and roll, or whatever it is “kids today” have on their playlists, there are some real reasons for parents today —those same parents, like me, who listened to the Violent Femmes in our own misbegotten youth— to stay awake worrying more than we’d like.

When those nights pile up, and they do even for educators like me who are in the business of teenagers, it’s important to look for allies who can help us make sense of this thing called parenting.

Sometimes those allies are fellow parents, whose own experiences can help us understand that we are not alone. There is a power in those four words, a power we all would do well to tap into more often. Sometimes it’s educators, counselors, therapists, or other professionals who can help provide support and perspective; seeking out professional help feels more important now than ever. Sometimes, particularly in those times when we don’t have someone to call or talk with, books can help.

This winter I picked up Dr. John Duffy’s Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. It’s a quick read, but worth it, and while I’ll confess to not agreeing with 100% of what he has to say, I really appreciated his approach to helping parents understand (as he puts it): “your child’s stressed, depressed, expanded, amazing adolescence.” His frank and thoughtful perspective was what I needed this January, both as a principal and as a dad.

Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety begins with the idea that while all of us were teenagers, “And yes, to an extent, we can relate. … the truth is, you were never this teenager.” Duffy goes on to explain that our adolescent worlds (before smartphones or the internet, back in the days of basic cable and a reliance on older siblings to curate pornography) were not the world our teenagers live in today.

Duffy even questions the accuracy of the term “teenager” to describe 21st century adolescents. “Now, we are going to find that the ‘teen’ designation is no longer entirely valid, certainly not the way it has been used historically. Because of a combination of unlimited access to information, the advent of social media and other technology, rising academic pressures, and other familial and social stressors, the teen years as we think of them have stretched to well before thirteen on the early end, and beyond nineteen on the back end.” 

As the principal of a 6th through 12th grade art school I can attest to this point of view, though I’d offer that the differences between an eleven year old and seventeen year old is still profound, and it’s with this professional perspective that I read all of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, often agreeing and always prompted to reflecting on what Duffy had to say.

Duffy subtitles Part One of the book “Painting the Picture” and as he shares his own clinical experience working with adolescents he brings up some uncomfortable truths about the challenges of being a parent (and of being an adolescent). The picture he paints feels both accurate and sobering.

Duffy reminds us more than once that “none of this is your child’s idea. As far as she is concerned, it has always been this way.” Our kids don’t remember a time before smartphones or the internet. The water they swim in is different from the ocean of our youth.

I’m fortunate to work at a school where students seem comfortable sharing their concerns with adults. Our counselors, teachers, and classified staff build strong relationships with kids and are often the people students turn to when they’re struggling or have a friend in crisis. Often, but not always, and not always first. As Duffy explains, adolescents tend to lean on each other, serving as “default counselors” in times of stress. This puts great pressure on the kids, and can lead the student who is supporting her friend to feeling in over her head. And it happens all the time.

“You may wonder,” Duffy writes, “why our children talk to each other, especially when they feel emotions that may be life-threatening. I’ve asked a number of kids that very question, and the answers are unequivocal, and strikingly consistent. We parents are too often afraid of their fears, depression, and anxiety. Further, our kids are fully aware of our fear. So they often go elsewhere.” 

This made me think of three things: 1) the acknowledgement that it’s understandable that we parents are afraid for our kids, uncomfortable, worried, and scared. We’re human after all and love our kids. 2) There’s a line in an old Johnny Cash song: “and a frightened child won’t hold a trembling hand.” 3) We can all find the strength we need to be there for our kids, to stop trembling long enough to be a support (as long as we find support for ourselves). 

Duffy explains it this way: “When we feel that inclination to shrink away from our child, or that draw toward anger because they are presenting us with some powerful negative emotion we feel we cannot control, we need to turn directly toward them. We need them to know they can come to us when they feel their worst.”

Easier, I thought to myself reading that paragraph, said than done.

And that was the line I danced on as I read Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety; I agreed with the presentation of the challenges, which included a litany of very real issues our kids face, and I knew that for me as a parent (and for many of the parents I work with as a principal) I needed more help with how best to “turn directly toward” the powerful emotions those challenges bring up.

I also felt like the approach in the book was best suited to those not in the acute crises that can come to families around very real issues that impact our kids. Suggesting more athletic activity really can work, and I’ve seen first hand the value of sports in kids’ lives, but as profound as this can be, there are kids and situations that overwhelm advice like this, and those situations are less rare than some of us would like to believe.

That said, Duffy provides some solid ideas about helping our kids find balance. Volunteering, getting engaged in activities, and increasing their time off screens all help adolescents can all help, as can parents increasing the number of positive to negative interactions with kids (he suggests five positive to one negative) and he stresses that parents’ “need to find empathy, with some degree of urgency.”

I think anyone reading this book is probably feeling that urgency, and that helping our kids empathetically is something we’re ready to do.

Helping us have the understanding of how to do so, Duffy outlines a series of challenges including family, school, and societal pressures. In a section that I found particularly helpful he defines “Identity Traffic” and the stress this puts on kids. Exacerbated by, but not confined to, social media, adolescents often feel like they’re performing in a world in which they’re changing costumes and makeup multiple times a day.

Duffy suggests that a parent “ask calmly and curiously what it is like for her to carry, manage, and navigate through these different identities. Ask which feels most authentic to her, and which feels most artificial. She may tell you that, when you peel away all the ‘false selves,’ she does not like herself very much. You will likely hear that she feels lonely a lot of the tie, even when she is with people, and particularly when she is on social media.” He adds, “You want to be a safe, reliable holding place for these emotions. The space is so curative for the incessant identity traffic kids suffer.”

The importance of this space extends beyond “Identity Traffic” and in Part Two, “Addressing the Issues,” Duffy gives enough examples to give pause to the faint hearted. 

Short sections on everything from addictions to abuse provide some perspective for parents, and emphasize the issue of anxiety from the book’s title. While my own experience with some of these topics is limited, my experience as an educator provided me with a bit more familiarity with the topics as a whole, and I could see this section being valuable in providing a baseline of understanding.

Part Two also provides grist for the mill of conversation, one example Duffy’s acknowledgement that parents have more access to how their students are performing at school than ever before, and his advice that “unless your child provides you with specific cause for concern, skip the apps and the portals and the tracking almost altogether. They are a collective trap, drawing you into a situation in which you are, in effect, spying on your child every day as a matter of habit. It’s unhealthy and fundamentally disempowering.”

Wow. Discuss.

And it’s in its potential to prompt discussions like this that Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety may have its greatest power. I look forward to finding ways to talk about these issues with other parents.

…but this post started with the notion that sometimes books provide perspective in times when conversations are hard to come by, and I’ll end it with the thought that Duffy’s book can provide a useful understanding for the parent reading at home, rain falling, the pandemic keeping us from gathering. It’s in Part Three that Duffy really asks us to reflect, and in this section where he offers good advice on how to be thoughtful parents to our anxious adolescents. 

He writes, for example, about the “vibe” we create in our homes. The importance of that “vibe” is fundamental to how we as parents nurture a space that can renew our adolescents and provide them (to borrow words from a musician some parents once worried about influencing the kids) shelter from the storm.

I really appreciated one of his final sections: “What you can do now.” I know it’s the place I’d try to steer any discussion of this book I had with parents; it provides some hope and ideas about what we can try when we close the covers and walk out to the kitchen where our kid is working on homework. Well, scrolling through instagram.

All will be well. That’s part of the vibe too.

I wonder what a book like this would have looked like if it was written when I was in school. Dungeons & Dragons is making your kids worship Satan. Prince is leading the kids down a path to sexual promiscuity. Camel is marketing cigarettes to kids. Wait, that last one… Anyway, I’d encourage any parent to pick up a copy of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety and take from it the lessons and information that are relevant to their own situation.  

Adolescence can be harrowing …for adults as well as the kids, and we can use all the resources we can find (written, professional, and parental) to give us a hand.

“When you mess with the bull…”

Parents and educators, we’re partners in this. As we navigate this odd, unusual, and unfamiliar world of Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) one of the best ways we can support our kids is to work together. What does that look like? Well, at its heart it means caring for students, communicating frequently and honestly, and staying as connected as we can around academics and social and emotional health. On the ground (or around the kitchen table) this can look different from day to day.

Last week one of my amazing teachers came to me with an idea that felt different than others I’d seen about parents supporting students, and I thought it would be worth sharing with families as another way to think about how we partner this fall. It sounds a little unconventional at first, but when the dust settles on his proposal what’s left makes some sense.

“As we know,” he wrote me, “most teenagers often require extra motivation, cajoling, and encouragement in order to do things they don’t want to do. Teenagers definitely need to be pushed through academically rigorous material. If it was just stuff they were interested in, they wouldn’t grow. If they could do it all on their own, it wouldn’t be hard enough. They are supposed to struggle and the work of education is continually adjusting the amount of struggle. In the classroom, I have an ability to see kids working and I can make adjustments. I can see when kids need to be redirected or helped or complimented. I can dole out rewards and inflict consequences. All for the sake of pushing a kid to try and work and grow.  

“All teachers can do now is present information and grade work. As we saw in the spring, this led to generally poor results for all stakeholders. Generally, the only one in a position to properly push these kids now are parents. This is not ideal or even fair, but it is the situation. If a parent is not in a position to administer their child’s education, due to work or other circumstances, that kid needs to be identified and we need to figure out how to provide them with educational guidance and support.  

“I heard a lot of frustration from parents that distance learning was overwhelming for them as well. We need to be sensitive to this and figure out how to keep their morale up and keep them engaged in this partnership. I believe that clarifying their role and helping them learn how to do it can make this manageable. I wonder if shifting terminology and asking parents to think of themselves as vice-principals rather than teachers would help.”

Wait, what? some of you might be thinking. That’s not the job I signed up for! His suggestion caught my attention too. But listen, this isn’t a scheme that asks you to put on a suit or dish out lines like “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.” It’s more thoughtful than that. (Though of course you are still welcome to tell your own son or daughter that if they mess with the bull…)

Bull and horns

He continued: “Most parents don’t know how to teach math and literature and chemistry, but they do know how to enforce rules, redirect behavior, and support someone through a struggle.  You administrators do an awesome job of this stuff when we’re in the building, but I’d imagine your capabilities during CDL have greatly diminished.

“I would like to clarify and support the parental role in CDL by asking them to focus on five main jobs:

  • Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
  • Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
  • Make the most of free time 
  • Verify completion of assignments
  • Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher

“We could have trainings and support sessions on each of these jobs ranging from “beginner” to “advanced.” These are things that parents should be able to do and ways they can be an integral partner. And again, if they aren’t in a position to do the above, we should identify those students and figure out how we can support those households. This role is critically important.”

So, parent as administrator, not instructor. Does that mean you don’t answer your kid’s question about the periodic table? No, but it shifts the focus of parent support to areas not limited to academics.

All five of the “jobs” this teacher suggested are vital to student success, and I’d like to unpack them over the next few weeks. Until then I invite you to think about ways parents and educators can work together to help make this school year as positive and productive as it can be. None of us can do this alone, but we’re not alone; we have each other, and the kids need that.

Balance, not Terror

photoWe’ve been, unapologetically, watching a lot of Star Trek lately.

This morning it was Balance of Terror, my seven year old son’s first introduction to the Romulans. He dug the explosions and his eyes widened (as every 1966 television audience member’s did) when it turned out that the evil Romulans looked like Spock.

A second grader, he’s enamored by flying through space and watching Kirk’s penchant for fisticuffs. The aliens intrigue him and the moral conflicts, more complicated than those he saw in Scooby Doo, give him something to think about.

Watching him experience Star Trek for the first time reminds me greatly of teaching high school English. I relished the fact that I got to introduce my students to Oedipus, Kurtz, and the marvelously mad Ophelia. Journeying with them from a time before they’d read Hamlet to a lifetime of having experienced the play felt magical.

As a high school principal, I get a catbird seat for those many milestones of growing up: the first day of high school, breaking up at the prom, the palpable anxiety and expectation that fills a stadium during graduation rehearsal. I also see, up close, those first experiences that help define character: bombing a test, a really important one; not making a team, or not playing much if you do make it; being faced with a decision between two terrible options, or even harder, between two great ones.

Any single experience does not define us. Parents and students who have found themselves in my office over the years have often heard me describe the stress of the moment (a suspension, a dust up with another student, an academic catastrophe) as “a speed bump, not a brick wall.” My twenty plus years as an educator have taught me the truth of choosing to see current stresses through that lens.

When we don’t, and it’s extraordinarily easy not to, we raise our own anxiety and do nothing to help ourselves or our kids.

More than once I’ve seen parents intervene, sometimes with a dramatic show of force, in situations that seem to mean more to them than to their kids. Almost always in these cases the parents’ passion comes from a place of love; as moms and dads we naturally want to protect our kids, but the results can sometimes produce a long term effect that is the opposite of what we hoped.

An example comes to mind of a person who coached for me a number of years ago. Fresh out of college, he was excited to have an opportunity to work with high schoolers, coaching a sport he loved. There was no question about the coach’s passion, but when obscenities began peppering his talks with the team, and when yelling became his standard tone at practices, something had to be done.

Working with our athletic director, we did our best to communicate school expectations and school appropriate behavior to our passionate (albeit a little immature) coach. We wanted to help him understand how he could keep his passion, but approach this job differently. It didn’t work.

At the end of the season, when the final review came due and we sat down for a difficult discussion, the coach chose not to met with us alone; he brought his dad.

As this caring, angry, protective father talked about “fairness” and our “obligation” to give his son another chance, I saw a parent/child dynamic that had been honed over years. How sad, I thought, even as it was happening, that this father was denying his son the status of adult.

There is a time to intervene, and a level of intrusion appropriate for each age. There is also a time when our kids begin to move past the love of phaser guns and space battles and are ready to engage in the more morally complex world.

Balance, not terror, should guide our actions as parents. We are, after all, the adults our children will learn to become.