Thursday, March 29, 2007

Secrets for Raising Teenagers

I devote a lot of words in this column to my three-year-old twins, but today I’d like to talk about my teenagers. I have really been so very blessed with these two boys. At ages seventeen and fourteen, they both take Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, and score As and Bs. They don’t drink alcohol, do drugs, or have sex. Of course, we have the usual arguments with them about how “overworked” and “underpaid” they are (their interpretations!), but overall they are just really good kids. I can’t take all the credit for it. In some ways, the odds were stacked against them as I raised them by myself for 9 years until I remarried 4 years ago. For most of that time, I received no financial support, so money was often tight. And now we face many of the problems encountered with blended families. But the boys have hung in there and make me incredibly proud. Here are some pointers for keeping teens on the right track:

1) Love them. I still tell my teens that I love them every day. They may be too embarrassed to return those words at this stage in their lives, but it’s temporary. Some day, they’re going to remember that you always told them you loved them, no matter what. When they do something wrong, emphasize that you still love them, even if you don’t love their behavior. Teens tend to overdramatize when they’re yelled at and say, “You don’t care about me.” Make sure they understand that you can still love someone even if you’re not happy with their actions.

2) Don’t be afraid to set limits. You don’t need to be your teens’ best friend. If you feel uncomfortable about them going somewhere, put your foot down. There have been several times when I’ve told my sons they couldn’t do something, and they’ve later thanked me because they heard the situation had turned troublesome. Sometimes, they really want an excuse to tell their friends “no,” and what better reason than, “My mean mom won’t let me go!”? I don’t mind being the “meanie.” I wouldn’t be mean if I didn’t care.

3) Get them involved in something outside themselves. My children have benefited greatly from attending our church youth group. Most of their friends are from church, and it makes me feel good that they’re involved in fun, but wholesome activities with them. Best of all, there’s a strong emphasis on thinking about others. My oldest son has been on two mission trips so far—to Costa Rica and Alabama—and will be leaving for New Orleans on his spring break to help rebuild houses. These have been some of the greatest experiences of his life and a good lesson for him to see that others have it much worse than he does!

4) Emphasize the importance of family. Kids need an anchor, a sense of belonging to “something.” Even though my two boys and I were a very small family for many years, we always stressed the fact that we were a team. My kids didn’t feel they were “missing out” by having a small family. They also have a good relationship with my parents. When I remarried, we were very fortunate that my husband’s family embraced my children as part of their family right away. My husband’s parents treat my sons just as if they were grandchildren born to them, and this new relationship has really been beautiful to see. One summer, their new grandpa flew the boys to their house in Alaska for some adventures. This sense of family has really been grounding for the boys.

5) Make them help out. Your kids may tease you by saying that you wanted kids just so you’d have household help, but don’t let that discourage you from insisting that they participate in taking care of the home. Teens are old enough to do their own laundry, clean their rooms, scrub the bathroom, do the dishes, and anything else that you do. You’re doing your kids (and their future spouses) a favor by teaching them how to take care of themselves and a household. Don’t back down just because they complain or do a shoddy job. All family members should be required to pitch in. And don’t give them allowance for things they should be doing anyway, like keeping their rooms neat. Give them cash for extra jobs, like mowing the lawn, washing the car, etc.

6) Respect their choices. Let’s face it: Our kids are never going to be the little clones we’d hoped to raise—people who would act and think exactly as we do! Teenagers are constantly trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. Don’t criticize their choice of music (unless it’s particularly violent), hairstyle, clothing, etc. Take a look at your old high-school pictures, and you’ll see that your own children’s experimentation is perfectly normal! Yes, they’re still kids, but they want to be treated as adults. Exerting total authority over them is bound to backfire. For the things that are temporary, let them have the choice. Blue hair will grow out. (Tattoos, however, won’t. Say “no” to them.)

7) Teach them about future consequences. Kids need to know you won’t be taking care of them forever. Express the importance of education to enable them to get a good job. Explain to them how their actions today greatly impact the future. They’re not likely to be able to have the things they want if they have a criminal record or lack a high-school diploma. Show them how much a car and a house cost. Go over a monthly budget with your children so they see how much money it takes to feed a family, pay the utilities, provide housing and transportation, etc. Kids tend to take these things for granted. They need to think about how their parents are able to provide these things, and how they’ll be able to do the same when they’re adults.

There are many ways to raise a child, and every child is different. Therefore, there is no magic formula for raising good teens. Excellent parents can still have problem children, and good children come out of bad homes. But by staying closely involved in your children’s lives, even when they don’t appear to need you as much anymore, you’ll be teaching them the lessons they need to learn to be the successful and happy adults you’d like them to be.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Boys Will Be Boys; Girls Will Be Girls

As I sit here listening to my three-year-old twin boys wrestle with their older brother in the other room, I am reminded again of my amazement at how quickly boys become boys. It seems as if girls act like girls and boys act like boys pretty much from birth!

I recall my sister telling me that her little girl, at the age of three, flung all of her clothes from her dresser drawers, threw herself to the ground with them, and cried, “I have nothing to wear!” Can you imagine a little boy exhibiting such diva behavior?

And just the other day, I asked one of my twins to say, “I love you.” He shook his head continuously, pursed his lips, and refused to comply. Finally, in desperation, I pleaded, “Won’t you please just say, ‘I love you, Mommy’?” (which was, by the way, a very girlish thing for me to say!). My little boy looked at me with a sneaky look in his eye and proclaimed, “I love you . . . NO!” Even at such a young age, he was reluctant—as men often are—to express his softer emotions. Whenever I comment on how cute he is or what beautiful blue eyes he has, he pouts and hangs his head. He doesn’t want attention drawn to how gorgeous he is! He’s Mr. Macho even at age three.

I visited the twins’ preschool the other day. The teacher led the children in a round of songs and activities. Many of the girls were singing loudly and clearly at the top of their lungs, while most of the boys (including my own) recited a word here or there, but were easily distracted. The teacher said to me later, “Isn’t it amazing how different the girls and boys are, even at this age?” An audiologist confirmed these differences to me the next day when she told me that 1 in 10 boys have language delays. Girls, in general, just pick up language more quickly!

Boys and girls are just different. When I see my boys racing around the house, throwing things and taunting each other, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if they had been girls. Would my house have been quieter? Would my children be peacefully coloring in their books or putting their dolls to bed if they had been girls? Of course, all children are unique, and one can’t generalize, but I’m willing to bet that my household would have been entirely different if I’d had four girls instead of four boys! (And, alas, perhaps at least one of my children would have been willing to go clothes shopping with me!)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Write a Poem for Your Child!

I went to a Moms’ Night Out event tonight. My sons’ preschool teacher hosts one at her home about once a month for all the mothers of the children in her classes. We have a great time chatting with each other about our children and comparing notes. Tonight was supposed to be a "Martha Stewart Night," during which each mother shared tips or a particular skill she has. I had a tough time coming up with an idea because I am not very domestic. Of course, I cook and clean and mend and all that stuff, but I just don’t enjoy them! I do the job and get it over with, so I didn’t have any great ideas to share in those areas. What I do know about, though, is writing, so I decided to teach the other moms how to write a short poem for their children that they can put in their baby books, scrapbooks, etc.

Do you remember learning how to write haiku poems sometime during your school career? This type of poem, born in Japan, is very simple. It consists of only three lines: The first line must have 5 syllables; the second line must have 7 syllables; and the third line must have 5 syllables. It sounds easy, but it’s a little trickier than you’d think! Most traditional haiku poems are about something from nature and are designed to provoke some sort of emotion or stirring of the senses for the reader. (For instance, it may describe the blowing of the wind through the trees.) My idea, however, was to take a dominant personality trait exhibited by our children and create a poem around it. Years later, I surmised, we’d read it and it would remind us, "Oh, yeah, remember how Molly used to love to pretend she was a ballerina!"

So give it a try. Here are three separate haiku poems that I wrote about my three-year-old twins. I think you’ll get an accurate picture of their similarities and differences!

Twins are little imps
From room to room they destroy
All things in their path

Austen is "all boy"
Ball-kicking, finger-licking,
Messy-faced angel

A book in his lap
Is all Caleb needs to have
To make him happy

Monday, March 05, 2007

In Awe of Our Children's Beauty

Sometimes I just can’t take my eyes off my children’s beautiful faces. When I look at three-year-old Austen’s face, I see his silky smooth skin, his perfect winged eyebrows, his giant blue eyes, his shiny blond hair . . . he is truly a creature of beauty! When I see my tired old eyes and saggy skin in the mirror, it’s amazing to me that I had a part in creating such loveliness. I try not to think about the fact that someday my children will get old like me, and people will have to look deeper to see the beauty inside.

My two oldest children are teenagers now, but even though they’ve lost a lot of their childish features, I still marvel at the people they have become. It’s wondrous to watch their faces and bodies mature. Long legs suddenly emerge; the face elongates; the hands are suddenly huge! I dig up pictures from when they were much younger and try to hold on to those images that are fading from my mind. I never want to forget the innocence and beauty of their childhoods.

People magazine recently wrote of actress Gwyneth Paltrow: “She still has a sense of awe when it comes to her children. ‘When I look at my daughter’s skin, it’s the most beautiful and perfect in the world,’” she says. I couldn’t agree more . . .

So while my final two children are still young, I’m going to drink in their loveliness. Even pictures can’t capture the perfection I’ll hold in my heart forever. Children are God’s greatest creation—true works of art.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Use Caution in Giving Cough and Cold Medicines to Young Children

I wasn’t surprised when I read an Associated Press article today noting that some public health officials and pediatricians believe “that many over-the-counter cough and cold remedies can harm toddlers and preschoolers,” and they “are pushing the government for stricter warnings to prevent life-threatening overdoses.” Call it mother’s instinct or a gut feeling, but I’ve always felt that over-the-counter medications should be used with extreme caution in young children. Most colds and flus are caused by viruses, and thus medications only treat the symptoms, not the illness itself. Over-the-counter medicines won’t make a cold go away any faster, and they can even make things worse if your child has a bad reaction or takes too much. In early 2007, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 1,500 toddlers and babies wound up in emergency rooms over a two-year period because of the drugs,” according to the same Associated Press article. Of course, you should always consult your pediatrician if your child’s illness seems to go beyond a simple cold, but I would also advise that you check with the doctor before giving any over-the-counter medication. If you do decide to use some, do so for only a short period of time and be extra careful not to use too much. I always feel so sorry for my kids when they are sick. As a parent, my first impulse is to give them something to make them feel “all better.” But there’s no magic pill for the common cold except for lots of love, time and rest! And there’s plenty of that to go around at my house.