Everywhere we look right now we hear and see the same few words over and over again.
For many of us, this constant news cycle can be overwhelming, tapping into our already somewhat heightened levels of anxiety. For those of us that are parents, we have an added layer of concern: how do we explain the current state of affairs to our children and provide them some sense of reassurance?
While there is no magic elixir, magic wand, or secret rule book, there are a few key strategies that just might help us to decrease our children’s current worries and restore a sense of hope.
1. Be Honest
As with most things, children know more than we think they do and they crave honest information. As much as I want to shelter my children from hearing about the potential bad things that could happen, now that they are in school and in sports, this is simply not a reliable option. They can potentially overhear information from an adult or directly from another child in a number of locations. When parents make the decision to provide their children with honest information, there is better control over what and how specific information is shared with their children.
2. Watch What You Say
On the flip side, be mindful about what you say around children, not just around your own children, but when you are out in public. You don’t want to be that person who exposes another child to information their parents had not yet shared.
3. Consider Development
Children’s emotional and cognitive capacities develop significantly throughout their childhood. Before sharing details with them, take their developmental stage into consideration. A 12 year old will want and need more specific and detailed information than a 7 year old may need. Avoid going into too much detail or overwhelming them with details. Let them guide you on how much information they need.
4. Be a Role Model
Let’s face it, children learn a lot from watching their parents: the good, the bad and the ugly. Show your children that feelings like anger and frustration are normal. If you are angry, name it. Be sure to not only show your child that it is normal to feel emotions but also demonstrate acceptable ways for them to express those emotions. Avoid holding it all in and expressing it only when the children are not around. Let them in on the realness of feelings. You will be providing them a solid model for how to handle and manage life’s biggest challenges to come.
5. Reassure. Reassure. Reassure.
Children need to feel safe and the adults in their lives are the ones who are tasked with that monumental responsibility. I am not advocating for you to tell your children that nothing bad will happen to them or near them ever as that would be a lie. You cannot predict the future. You can, however, point out that good stuff happens far more often than the bad stuff. Remind children of all the people and systems in place to keep them safe and all the healthy people around them. Reassure them that you would never knowingly put them in a dangerous situations. Highlight safety measures that are in place in they express fear over attending a certain event. Repeat as many times as necessary. When you think you’ve said it all enough, say it one more time.
6. Limit Media
Television news, social media accounts and newspapers now provide non-stop, around the clock coverage of the virus outbreak. Pictures, video, audio clips; it’s all out there and it can quickly become too much for children. Be mindful of what children may be exposed to and consider whether it is necessary. I recall hearing accounts from 9/11 that many children interpreted the frequent replay of the plane hitting the tower as multiple planes hitting multiple buildings day after day. Even if you think your children aren’t watching the news with you or don’t see the headlines on the newspaper, think about what they may overhear from the next room or what they may see when the newspaper is left casually on a kitchen table.
7. Create an Open Dialogue
Children need time to process things. It is not unusual for children to need days or even weeks to develop questions or be able to express their thoughts on difficult topics. Send your child the message that you can always find time to talk with them. Many parents have success by carving out time each night around bedtime for an opportunity for children to share their experiences, thoughts, feelings and ask questions. Some parents schedule weekly one-on-one parent/child dates at a coffee shop or fast food restaurant to connect. These conversations tend to be better received when they focus on one child at a time, rather than as a family dialogue with multiple children of various developmental stages.
8. Point Out the Positive
Despite what we see on a daily basis, there are lots and lots of great things that happen locally, nationally and internationally. Seek out the good stuff and share it often with your children. Local newspapers can often be a more positive source of news, particularly for children. Highlighting the positives can also go a long way to helping children feel safe. No amount of the good stuff is too much!
9. Monitor Behavioral Changes
Keep a watchful eye on your child’s behavior. Changes in sleeping and eating patterns may indicate that your child is having a hard time processing some events and information. Changes such as suddenly wetting the bed again or asking to sleep in your bed could be a normal response to stressful information. Be careful not to shame your child about changes like these. Rather, give them some time, continue to provide reassurance and keep a watchful eye. If you are concerned, reach out for support. Your child’s school, their pediatrician and local child therapists are all great resources.
When I became a parent nearly 14 years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about parenting. I’d read all the baby books, perused all the baby websites, signed up for the weekly emails about my baby’s development and yet still was woefully under-prepared for what it would take to be a mother.
Not much has changed since then. I still feel inadequate most days as I stumble my way through the maze of parenthood.
As my oldest approaches his 14th birthday, I find myself amazed by how much he has changed in just one year. Facebook Memories and Timehop remind me almost daily that every day he steps closer and closer to adulthood, slipping further and further away from childhood.
Blinking back tears, I look at him today, amazed at the young man he has become and I am humbled by just how much he has taught me during his 13th year:
1. Hold on loosely, but don’t let go
It turns out that 80’s bands gave us more than just good music — they gave us solid advice to live by as parents. My 13 year old has taught me this year that while I need to hold onto him and continue to guide him, I can’t cling too tightly. He needs space to find himself and that means space to make his own mistakes. If I hold too tightly, he’s never going to learn how to make it as an adult.
2. Hit the Whoa
Every year there is some new “dance” that takes over on Tik Tok and You Tube. If you’re lucky, your 13 year old will tell you about it, teach you it, and then tolerate you when you are in public and try to show off your skills. I’m still not exactly sure what the Whoa actually is though…
3. Be honest with friends
Middle school has been rough for me as a parent this past year, as it turns out that middle school drama doesn’t really stop when you leave middle school. It all rears its ugly head again when you become a middle school parent. During moments this past year when my 13 year old caught wind of such drama, he was always very matter of fact and eager to offer advice to me. He always encouraged me to “just talk to them” and be honest. His message — if they are your friends, they’ll understand.
4. Hard work pays off
This past year has seen my 13 year old face a significant arm injury, requiring lots of visits to specialists for testing, physical therapy, and sports restrictions. Pain, daily ice massages on his elbow, strengthening and stretching workout and playing baseball with his team while not really be able to do anything more than swing a bat sometimes would be a lot for any adult to manage, let alone a teenager. But he persevered and was able to finish the final few games of the season without any restrictions. I think most adults, myself included, would have given up.
5. Don’t sweat the small stuff
You can learn a lot from how 13 year old boys handle conflict. While they have their share of disagreements with their friends, get hurt, and have drama, they are quick to let it go and move on. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They let it roll of their backs. We could benefit from doing more of the same as adults.
6. Teen music is great for working out
I think every generation has a “I can’t believe what those kids are listenting to for music these days” moment. But, it turns out, if you are open minded and let them play their music for you, you just may find yourself asking them to add some of those songs to your workout play list. The music those crazy kids are listening to these days is great for cardio and weights at the gym!
7. Sleepovers are the worst
I thought sleepovers would get better as they got older. They don’t. Although they can regulate themselves and then recover a bit quicker than my 10 year old when it comes to going to sleep at a normal time, now that they are teenagers the responsibility of hosting becomes so much more stressful for us as parents. Are other kids bringing in vapes, drugs, or alcohol? Are they going to try to sneak out? Are they doing something on social media that might hurt other kid’s feelings? Nope. Sleepovers for 13 year olds still suck.
8. Disney is magical, even for teenagers
Our family has always loved taking trips to Walt Disney World. Each time we go, we wonder “Is this it? Are they too old for the magic?” It turns out that 13 is not too old! As we were walking out of Epcot park at the end of an evening in Disney last month, my 13 year old leaned over to me and said, “Mom, even though we are older now. Doing this is still a lot of fun.” I tried to give him a hug as tears started forming in my eyes but that was quickly shot down as hugs are a bit of a rare commodity for some teens.
9. Hugs are the greatest gift
When my son was little, he was a great hugger and snuggler. Now, hugs are much harder to come by. But, when I do get a surprise hug hello or thank-you or as a comfort, it is one of the greatest gifts ever. I wish I hadn’t taken all those toddler hugs for granted, I never knew how much I would miss them.
10. Teenagers can navigate
Earlier this month we went tubing down a river in New Hampshire with a large group of families. It was 5 mile river float and we let the group of teenage boys float off together ahead of the adults. Many of us worried that they wouldn’t be aware enough to see the tiny sign that would indicate it was time for them to get off the river. When we rounded the bend and saw the beach with the sign, the teens were nowhere in sight. I immediately wrote them off, assuming they missed it but I could not have been more wrong. Not only had they seen it, but they had returned their floats to the rental place and were waiting together for us near our cars.
11. Car rides are special
Joining a travel sports team has meant lots of long car rides over the past year and although those often meant waking up early and staring at headlights for 2+ hours, they also mean that I got to ride side by side with my 13 year old, trapped in a moving box. Just us. Something special often happens on those long car rides. The air shifts just a bit and he begins to open up about his life, his friends, his feelings, his fears. I love those car rides now.
12. Teens have instincts too
One of the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my 13 year old is that just because we, as adults, are older, doesn’t necessarily mean we are wiser. Teenagers are humans too and have some gut instincts that sometimes are spot on. It’s important to give them a chance to use their voice and share their instincts. Being able to tap into that insight will help them immensely in their adulthood.
13. We need more cereal
One of the primary sources of fuel for 13 year old boys is cereal. It could be a meal for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack and teenagers eat it by the boatload. My 13 year old has taught me to assume that we always need more cereal. If you see me at any store these days, I can guarantee I have some cereal and milk in my cart.
There are whole sections of bookstores devoted to the topic of how to parent a teenager. You could read every single one of those books and still feel unsure of yourself as you navigate the waters of parenting a teenager. But, I’m learning that the best way to parent them is to see them, hear them, and accept them for who they are right now…and feed them lots and lots of cereal.
Recently, video surfaced of a physical fight that broke out between parents at a baseball game for 7-year-old children in Colorado. The cause of the fighting? Parents of the players disagreed with the 13-year-old umpire’s decisions. As video of the incident circulated over social media and even national news outlets, many people appear to be shocked that adults would display such terrible (and illegal) behavior over kids playing a youth sport.
I’m not shocked. Not even a little. As the parent of a 13-year-old baseball player, I have spent years watching the antics of parents at youth sporting events. Although I’ve never seen a full on brawl between the adults, I have seen parents, coaches, and even grandparents be ejected from games for heckling and arguing with child and volunteer umpires and referees. I’ve seen adults have to step between coaches and parents before fists started to fly. I’ve seen people’s cars get keyed by other parents over disputes that happened between their kids on the field. I’ve seen parents encourage their 8-year-old child to “get back” at another player by trying to deliberately hurt them. I’ve seen friendships and entire youth sports volunteer boards be torn apart because of disagreements about a game.
So, when I see video of parents resorting to violence, I’m not even a little surprised. Bad behavior from adults is one of the primary reasons why my son will never ump a baseball game without one of his parents there — just in case the adults lose sight of the fact that they should be acting like adults.
What is the cause of such behavior from adults? Perhaps it is all the stuff lurking beneath the surface. Maybe it’s the murmurs on the sidelines, the passive aggressive posts on social media, or the tendency of adults to try to pull the kids into their adult drama that creates this pressure cooker environment. Eventually all of this build-up leads to total chaos from the adults involved with youth sports.
In short, adults simply are forgetting to be adults. Just last week while I cheered on my 13-year-old son’s flag football team, the mom standing beside me called the coach (my husband) the “R” word. Yes, the “R” word. Her friends standing with her quickly leaned in towards her, whispering and motioning towards me, clearly encouraging her to be quiet as the coach’s wife was standing within ear shot. “Oh I know. I don’t care,” she said in response. Nice. Her son is good friends with my son and she and I are Facebook “friends.” Had I not been able to have the wherewithal to take some deep breaths, find a way to have compassion for her lack of understanding, and excuse her poor choice of words, people would have seen a very ugly version of myself.
A few days later, I sat in a restaurant for a birthday dinner with friends and suddenly the party went to shambles as another adult approached our table and began arguing with one of the party-goers. Restaurant patrons turned to stare, members of our party left abruptly, and I wouldn't have been surprised if fists had started to fly. What were they arguing about? What else? Youth sports. In a restaurant. At a dinner party.
The truth of the matter is, I’ve been in the shoes of these adults that lose their cool. I’ve stood on the sidelines and wondered why my kids weren’t playing as much as others. I’ve seen coaches favor their own kids and restrict kids from playing as a way to get back at them for something unrelated to the game. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve asked questions. I’ve had strong feelings towards coaches and other parents. I’ve wanted to approach other parents and coaches in public and tell them what I really think of them. But, I don’t. I’ve never stood on the sidelines and loudly called someone the R word. I’ve never been kicked out of the stands. I’ve never resorted to physical violence.
It’s hard in times like these to not just pull my kids out of every sport and move on with our life. But, the kids love it. At the end of the day, they don’t care much about bad calls or playing time or winning and losing. They don’t care about taking sides in a town-wide battle between parents who disagree about a selection of a coach. They just want to have fun. They just want to be kids.
If we look hard, beyond the headlines of brawls at youth sporting events, beyond the passive aggressive social media posts, beyond the sideline comments, we can still see the heart of youth sports. Despite all the drama perpetuated by parents, at the core, youth sports are still a magical thing.
During this same week as the baseball game brawl, sideline “R” word, and the restaurant argument, I also bore witness to some pretty amazing moments. An 11-year-old fell into the end zone to catch a game-winning touchdown pass and ran over to the stands, huge smile on his face, shouting “Mom!!!! Did you see that??? I caught it!! We won!!” It was pure joy for that little boy, his mother, and his entire team. Even the adults cheering for the other team were smiling back at the boy.
I also witnessed a 13-year-old baseball player who had been having strike out after strike out the past few weeks finally hit a bomb to left field that drew every parent and kid to their feet and resulted in another huge smile from a child, his parents, his teammates, and the adults around him.
I read a story about a baseball team, umpire, and coaches who decided to let a pitcher with a broken leg enter an inning for one batter to be able to say he played in a very important game.
My own son, who has been restricted from throwing for the past 8 months due to an injury, finally got the clearance to start a return to throwing program and was able to warm up the right fielder before this weekend’s games. A small step, but huge for him. Even the adults around him made note and congratulated him. They knew how big of a deal it was for him and for his team that he was able to begin returning to the game he loves.
I witnessed friendships being formed and strengthened on the sidelines between parents. I witnessed volunteers giving up their nights to run scoreboards for championship little league games and announce players names over the speaker.
I witnessed childhood happening all around me and it was truly spectacular.
These moments, the ones filled with pure joy and heart, not the moments filled with drama, are the ones that define youth sports. These are the moments that deserve to be circulated on social media and the evening news. These are the stories that matter. These are the stories that prove that we have not lost at youth sports, after all. The magic is still there. Sometimes we just have to look a little harder for it.
Fourteen years ago I was pregnant with my oldest son and I spent all my free moments devouring every baby book I could get my hands on. I bookmarked websites about babies and child development, confident that I would now know where to turn for guidance along every step of my parenting journey. I joined online groups with other mommies to expand my social network and find potential support resources. I prepared and prepared and then prepared some more.
But, all those books and websites failed to tell me something important; something that would make me cry rivers of tears sometimes and would keep me awake some nights. They never told me the reality that I would lose my baby, my toddler, my sweet impressionable elementary school little boy over and over again. I would grieve a million little losses all before he even learns to drive.
As I sat and watched my youngest son perform in his annual end of the school year concert yesterday, I was hit with a pang of thick sadness. In that moment, I realized he has only one more year left in his elementary school experience. We are almost at the end of this chapter of his life and the pages are turning super fast.
Watching him on the stage called my memory back to when my oldest son was on that same stage singing songs about summer vacation and growing up. Where did that time go? Now he’s closer to graduating high school and going to prom than he is to boarding the kindergarten school bus for the first time or holding my hand in public.
While I love the young men my boys are becoming, my heart aches for the babies I used to have. Those babies that played with my long hair as I nursed them, fell asleep as I sang them lullabies, and squealed with delight when I would make a funny face at them are no longer here. They are gone. Sure, they are forever lodged in my memories and in online photo albums but I will never see them again, never hold them again, never kiss their sweet heads covered in soft baby hair again.
Those toddlers that sat in between me and my husband on Disney World rides, grabbed our hands, looked up at us with nervous anticipation and asked in raspy little voices, “ready mama daddy?” have left our lives forever.
The bright eyed and naive first and second graders that bounded off the bus each day after school, eager to show us their drawings and asking to snuggle with us while watching a cartoon don’t live with me anymore.
Those babies. Those toddlers. Those young school children. Gone.
None of the baby books or websites or mommy groups told me about these losses. No one prepared me for how many times, like yesterday’s concert, the realization of the little boys I no longer had would hit me like a ton of bricks out of nowhere. No one gave me a heads up for the real pain I would feel when I realize they are forever changed and the former versions of them no longer exist.
Don’t get me wrong. I love who my boys are now. There are so many amazing moments that fill me with joy as I parent my teen and my tween; moments that make me think that these versions of them are my favorite. Lurking at the back of my mind, however, is the knowledge that these versions of them too will fade away, and I will mourn their loss again.
As I watched my oldest son on the baseball field and heard about my youngest son making amazing saves as goalie at his lacrosse game today, I made a conscious decision to savor these moments. I took mental snapshots of today’s version of my boys and sat with the realization that these versions are fading before my eyes. As other parents around me complained about the baseball game taking too long or their kids making errors, I leaned into the extra time I got to spend watching them today, choosing to focus on taking in every aspect of my boys and who they are today.
Because now I know.
There are still a million more little losses to come.
The elementary school drop off line is quite possibly Hell on Earth. It is here that we see the worst of our society. In this line, rules don’t matter. It is every mom or dad for themselves. Every morning in the drop off line is like a trip to a casino; except this casino doesn’t come with a fancy hotel room, free cocktails, or lavish shows. Nevertheless, just like at a casino, I get to try my luck at being a winner and I never know what I’m going to get. As I pull down the school street each morning, I brace myself for the unknown. What will the other parents do this morning?
Will I get lucky and sail to the front of the line where my well trained 10 year old can tuck and roll out of the car, shouting “I love you!” over his shoulder as he maneuvers himself masterfully out of my almost still moving car?
Will I get stuck backed up onto the main street where I silently (and sometimes not so silently) curse the parents in front of me who choose to blatantly ignore every rule that has ever existed in the drop off line?
Will the parents in the cars in front of me actually pay attention to the school and police staff members waving them forward and pull all the way up to the front of the line?
Will they pull their car up to the middle of the line, get out and start walking into the school, ignoring the directions shouted to them by the teachers and police officer to get back into their vehicle and park in the parking lot? (By the way, I feel pity for those poor teachers and police officers each morning. What a dreadful way to start their day.)
Will they instruct their child to unbuckle their seat belt and gather their belongings while their car glides to a stop at the front of the line, making for an almost imperceptible stop of their vehicle?
Will they pull their car into the line, put it into park, and slowly get out of the driver’s seat, meandering around to the passenger’s side to help their cherubs out of the car? And will those little angels move with the slow oozing pace of a young child who has to “do it myself!!”?
Will they respectfully and without any deviation follow all of the drop off line rules that have been repeatedly posted on social media, sent home with children and plastered in front of the school building?
Will they pull up to the curb and then take 5 minutes reviewing homework slips, giving big hugs and kisses to their child, and getting engrossed at the open passenger side door in a lengthy conversation about after-school plans?
Will they complete the early morning drop off of their child without any incident?
Will they stop their car self-righteously in front of the main entrance, blocking the crosswalk from the parking lot and cause traffic to back out onto the main road, inevitably making many of us late for work?
The madness of the carpool drop off line is enough to drive any parent crazy, especially if you are like me and have a carefully choreographed morning that allows you to pull into work *just* in time after dropping your child off at school. But what happens when we allow this maddening free-for-all to dictate our morning? Does it mean that we then find ourselves short tempered for the rest of the morning? Do we carry that stress with us into our work or into the rest of our day with our children? How can we take away the power that damn line has over us?
I found myself pondering these very questions the other day when the mom in front of me stopped right in front of the main entrance and then opened every single door of the car to help children climb out — front seat, both back seats AND the rear hatch. Each child got an individual hug and kiss, a check of their backpack and lunchboxes, and time for some exchange of words that made each child smile. The eye rolls from the other parents stuck behind them were almost audible and the mom could not have cared less about the directions being yelled at her by the school staff.
While this display only held me up by about 3 minutes, I felt it physically in my body. My face turned red, my hands clenched the steering wheel tighter, and I began adding up all the extra time that was now being tacked on to my commute to work. It set off that familiar anxious chatter in my brain of all the things that could now go wrong. Now I would be stuck behind the school bus picking up kids in the next town and then I would be stuck for at least 3 light cycles at that big intersection near my work. I would not have much time to get myself prepared for my first patient and would have to wait to send that important email to my students.
When I of course got stuck behind that school bus, I started to realize how silly it was to let that one mom’s goodbye to her children ruin my day. My day had only just begun. I still had hours and hours ahead of me. So what if I was a few minutes late for work? The world wouldn’t end and, truthfully, if my schedule is really that tight then I should make sure I leave the house early enough to be the first parent in that line.
As I followed the bus down the main road, stopping every few houses to let on another child, I wondered if there was a way to re-frame the way I experience the drop off line. Rather than allowing myself to feel anger and frustration towards the parents who are breaking the rules, would it be possible to try to find a way to feel empathy for them? Perhaps something in their lives is so stressful, so painful, so exhausting that they simply don’t have the mental or physical energy to follow the drop off line rules. Maybe it’s all they can do to get themselves and their kids out the door on time. Maybe that mom really needed all that extra time with her kids that morning.
Maybe in the grand scheme of life it doesn’t really matter that much. These days where we get to roll the dice every morning with the drop off line are going to be over soon. Soon our kids will be choosing to walk with their friends, ride their bike, or take the bus to school instead of sitting with us in that drop off line. Eventually, some day sooner than we’d like to admit, they will be driving themselves. Not too soon after that, they won’t even be living in our house anymore. Maybe these extra few minutes with them each morning are really a gift. Maybe we are winning after all.
Santa died and it totally sucked.
The day of Santa’s death started out like a normal Sunday. We were in the beautiful space between basketball and baseball season where there are a small handful of days without practices and games. We invited family over and had a lazy day spending time together. But, while playing basketball in the driveway with his father and his uncle, my oldest saw an opportunity and took it.
The first one to die was the Tooth Fairy.
Logic did that poor fairy in. My son and some of his friends had talked at school and compared notes about the Tooth Fairy. The numbers didn’t add up. Some kids got $1. Some kids got $2. Some kids got $5. Some kids got $10. So, he asked for confirmation that the Tooth Fairy was “just the parents doing it.”
He’s 11 1/2 and they were completely caught off guard for such a conversation in the middle of a driveway basketball game. So, they told him the truth.
It quickly unraveled from there.
A few hours later, as we all were settling into bed, my oldest seized another opportunity. He stood at the foot of my bed as I snuggled under the covers. I was feeling safe and cozy in my fuzzy socks and my warm comforter. He took advantage of the quiet, peaceful moment and said
“So…if the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, how can any of it be real? Has it all been a lie?”
I’d feared this moment since the very first time we talked about Santa with this child. I had practiced my response over and over in my head. I had bookmarked great articles and saved suggested letters and activities to help tell the children the truth. It was going to be perfect!
As soon as the question left his lips, I could feel an uncomfortable smile creeping across my face. Damn it! Why do I have to smile and giggle when I’m uncomfortable?
“Mom!!!!! You are the worst liar!!”
We went to his room and laid down side by side in his bed where I told him everything. By the end of it, I was crying and he had tears in his eyes. To say the truth broke his heart would be an understatement. With every question I answered, I could see him slipping further away from the childhood version of him.
We cried together and every few days since then he has asked another question about it all as he tries to fit this new information into his understanding of the world. Now, I know Santa didn’t really die and Christmas is all about magic and magic is in our hearts and all that happy stuff. But, in that moment, when my oldest looked at me and asked
“Has it all been a lie?”, if felt like a death.
While I am excited to have him take on some of the magic by helping keep Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and all of their friends alive for his brother, I find that he and I are grieving.
Someone once told me that children are gifts we have for 18 years and then we have to set them free.
That was two years ago and I realized then that I was already halfway through my “gift.” I thought time was moving fast then but it was nothing compared to how quickly it is moving now. Perhaps more so now in his death than when he was alive, Santa is reminding me of the magic of childhood and just how important it is to hold onto it for as long as we possibly can.
A little over one year ago I wrote about The Bridge between childhood and adolescence. Back then, I found myself somewhere in the middle of that bridge, longingly looking back towards the childhood side yet hopeful as I moved apprehensively towards the adolescence side.
Well, it appears my bridge was an express bridge.
Here I am; on the other side.
You know what's here? Cell phones, mustaches, adam's apples, deep booming voices, attitudes, challenges to limits, and boys who suddenly stand at eye level to me.
You know what else is here?
Meaningful conversations, random tight hugs, trust, and young men who are mostly kind and learn from their mistakes. Surprisingly, it's sort of nice over here; albeit a bit smelly and messy. On this side of the bridge, I am the parent of a young man, not a young boy, and I get to start taking a step back to let him take some risks on his own.
One of the first big events on this side of the bridge happened today: the first day of middle school. Or, as my son's new principal told the parents last week, Day 1 of the 540 school days of his middle school career.
In some areas of our life, 540 seems like a lot.
But, when we are talking about time in middle school, 540 days is nothing. It's half the length of time he spent from Kindergarten through 5th grade (1080 school days for math dorks like myself). That period of time went by in the blink of an eye. Surely these next 540 days are going to fly by even quicker!
So, how do we, as new middle school parents, survive these next 540 days?
Well, I know how I spent the days leading up to Day 1 - letting the middle school version of me find her way to the surface. I color coded binders, folders and schedules, circled rooms on maps, plotted out the best way to organize his backpack, role played some scenarios, and had a nightmare that I was him and I couldn't find my math class on Day 1. I just wanted his middle school experience to not be awful like my own.
But, then I stopped myself. (Because, seriously, a nightmare??)
Adolescence is messy and painful. It's supposed to be awkward. It's supposed to be emotional. It's supposed to be challenging. Some days are supposed to feel awful. And, aren't middle school and adolescence synonymous?
Like most challenging, uncomfortable and unpleasant things in life, when we look back on them later, we can see the good they brought to our lives. They are the catalytic events and change agents that shape our lives. Although I would never want to relive my own 540 days, I do see how they helped to shape me into who I am today. I see how some of the people I still care deeply for today are friends I made during those 540 days. I can see that in those 540 days were where many of my interests were born. My 540 days were certainly not filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies, but maybe I should be thankful that they weren't.
As my middle schooler hugged me goodbye today, I tried to tell the middle school version of myself to settle down. I know many of his 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments. I know there will be lots of times where he feels just as I did during my 540 days. His 540 days will not be filled with unicorns and rainbows and butterflies.
So, how am I going to navigate my own 540 day journey as a parent? I am going to realize that in many ways the parental journey of 540 days mirrors the student's journey. These 540 days will be challenging for me as a parent. If adolescence is awkward and painful, so to is parenting an adolescent. For parents, many of our 540 days will be filled with some tough decisions, hurt feelings, hard lessons and uncomfortable moments too.
It has been suggested that the most influential people in a teen's life are not his teachers, coaches, parents or professional athletes. It turns out that for many teens, their peers are the most influential presence. Middle schoolers need each other. I suspect that this holds true for middle school parents as well. Parents need other parents.
My plan for surviving the next 540 school days is simple: lean on my peers, be kind when mistakes are made, learn lessons where they can be learned and remember that this time is going to fly by. While I am not in any rush, I look forward to seeing who we all are on Day 540.
Only 539 more days to go...
How did we get here?
Weren't we just filling out beginning of the school year forms, buying and labeling folders and school supplies, picking out first day of school outfits and gleefully sending our kids off to a new school year?
Now here we are, thickly in the midst of end of the school year activities. Concerts. Plays. Performances. Field Days. Graduations. Field Trips. Summer camp registrations.
This year is different, though. This year is my oldest baby's last year of elementary school. As this school year comes to an end, this chapter in his life is closing.
I thought the only way I would make it to this point would be by someone dragging me unwillingly as I clung desperately to the thought of my baby staying in elementary school. Just 9 months ago I watched him get on the bus for his first day of 5th grade and I couldn't believe middle school was coming. This point in time seemed so far away then. It was completely on the other side of The Bridge. But now, when I send him off to school each day, I think "He's totally outgrown elementary school." He's ready. His friends are ready. I'm ready.
Or so I thought,
Last week he took the stage in his final elementary school talent show in a group number with over 40 of his 5th grade classmates. When at the end of the performance, the students grouped themselves together so that their shirts spelled out "THESE WERE THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES." I let out an audible gasp and then cried for the first time about him leaving elementary school.
It hit me in that moment - not only were these the best years of his life (so far), they also have been the most influential. It was there, in classrooms, recess playgrounds, cafeterias and hallways that he learned how to build solid friendships, how to be himself, how to learn, how to play, how to manage independence, how to ask for help and how to give help. It was here that he transitioned from a short, squishy, shy, self-conscious 6 year old to the tall, athletic, outgoing and confident 11 year old he is today.
As I tried to see through my tear-filled eyes, I looked around the stage at our 5th graders and then at some of my fellow 5th grade parents. From here on out, we start letting them go a bit more and trusting that the foundation they built during their elementary school years is strong enough for them...for us.
Recently my Timehop showed me a picture of my current 5th grader as a 5 year old, preparing to transition into kindergarten. We were at a "Touch a Truck" event and he had excitedly climbed onto a big yellow school bus with me. There on my Timehop was a photo of me and my baby, peering out the school bus window, both of us filled with excitement about the years to come in elementary school. If I could go back in time and interview that version of us, I don't think either of us really had any idea what the elementary school years would bring us - moments of pure joy, fear, laughter, sadness, new friendships born, old friendship broken and mended and immense amounts of growth.
These years of elementary school weren't always easy.
But, you know what?
They truly have been the best years of our lives.
One of the best things that happened to me in my early educational career was that I only had to go to Middle School (or Jr. High as it was known back then) for two years - not the typical three years. I spent a hellish 6th and 7th grade at the Middle School in my home town and then our 8th grade class became the first class to start the 8th grade year in the High School. Woo hoo!
If you were anything like the Middle School version of me, then 6th and 7th grade probably were awful for you too. You couldn't pay me enough money to relive those years: the constant physical, mental, social and emotional changes; teasing, bullying and general drama; boyfriend/girlfriend issues; and overall awkwardness. I'm fairly certain that 8th grade me flipped my Middle School the bird and yelled "Peace Out!" on my last day in that nightmarish period of my life. When they knocked the building down a few years ago, I felt no sadness. None at all.
Thank God we don't have to ever relive those years.
I have come to realize over the past few months that we never really do leave Middle School for good. For those of us that become parents and get to experience the super awesomeness of parenting tweens and teens, it's like going straight back to Middle School. It's like a time machine that sends you back to the worst period of your life. Totally cool.
Middle School is no different the second time around. Actually, I think it might be worse the second time around. Instead of ME being the target and the one going through all of the changes, drama and awkwardness, it's my child going through it and I feel it all. All of it. When he gets made fun of, I feel it. When he struggles with complex emotions and difficult decisions, I'm there with him. When his heart gets broken, so too does mine. (The psychotherapist in me wonders if maybe this means I'm too connected to him. Probably. But, I'm still standing on The Bridge. I need a little more time.)
So, aside from diving head first into a nice bottle of red and some Netflix bingeing, here are some tips to help you survive your second go round with Middle School:
1. Monitor screen time
Today's tweens and teens are growing up in a society where there is instant gratification and complete interconnectedness. While these technological advancements can be exciting and certainly quite useful, they also make it a bit of a challenge for social skill development. Monitor your children's use of social media. Read their texts, tweets and posts. Tweens and teens have become very skilled at bullying over social media and their parents often have no idea that it is happening. Spend some time researching secret apps that teens are using now. In this instance, Google is your friend.
2. Create space for honesty
It's fairly unlikely that your 12 year old is going to come home from school everyday and pour his heart out to you. But, you can consistently send your children the message that you are there for them. You want to hear them. You want to support them. Sometimes the end of the day/bedtime is a good place for these conversations to take place organically. Sometimes, though, it's places like the car where tweens and teens open up with their parents. Something about staring straight ahead at the road and not into their parent's eyes seems to make them more comfortable. So, make some time to just drive around and see what comes up in conversation.
3. Model appropriate behavior
Full disclosure here. Adults acting like Middle School students is one of my pet peeves. It's hard to explain how wrong bullying and teasing is to our children when so many adults in their lives have themselves become skilled at bullying others on social media. Think twice before posting that passive aggressive meme about a peer. Would you condone your child posting such a meme about his peer right now? How would you feel if someone posted it about your child? Watch how you talk about other parents and peers in front of your children. They pick up on way more than you think.
4. Think twice before getting involved
There are many times when I want to march myself into my children's school, bus or sports teams and give one of their peers a piece of my mind or sit them down and mediate a discussion for them. In the vast majority of those situations, getting involved would only be about me and wouldn't do anything to help my children or their peers learn how to successfully and responsibly handle conflict. Take a step back and let your tween and teen figure it out. Role play scenarios and conversations with them and support their efforts to problem solve on their own. And, of course, advocate when needed and consult with other parents when able to do so.
When all else fails and you find yourself cursing these Middle School experiences, take a deep breath and remember that this is temporary. Before we know it, they'll be out of Middle School (and we'll be out of Middle School again too!) and they'll be young women and men. Just as quickly as they went from being helpless babies and toddlers to tweens and teens with their own personalities and lives, they'll be out of our house. So, even though it just plain stinks at times (literally and figuratively if you have boys), lean into the discomfort of these times and be grateful that they let us come along for the ride.
P.S. In case you were wondering, we get to experience Middle School one more time in life - when we become residents in nursing homes and long term care settings. Oh boy. It's Middle School all over again. But, that's a whole other Oprah...
Sometimes I look at my children and I can totally and completely understand what is happening inside their brains. I get them. It's like they are little versions of me as a child, yet slightly different and much improved. Their choices in food, music, television and movies often sync perfectly with mine. The way they approach problems and their interpretations of the world also line up neatly with my own. They are perfect little humans.
Then there are other times where I look at my children and I don't get them. At all. In those moments, I look at their handsome faces, devilish eyes and playful grins and think that surely I gave birth to aliens. How on Earth can they be so vastly different than me? So unhuman at times??
Clearly, the only answer is that I am raising aliens.
If your son approaches the following topics the same way as my boys do, then it's safe to say that you may also be raising aliens:
It's snowing outside, why is it so terrible that I require my children wear pants to school? "Mom!? No one else wears pants!" "Can't I just wear shorts and long socks instead?" Yeah. That's a great look.
Why is it so hard to pee IN the toilet? This is not a problem to which I can relate. (Although I have been in enough public women's restrooms to know that clearly it IS an issue for some women.)
Mornings would be so much easier if my children would put their shoes where they belong each night. But, for some reason, they prefer the very fun game of "I can't find my shoes!" every morning where we pull open drawers, look under beds and couches, and rummage through closets to find shoes as we rush to make it out the door on time. Apparently it's super fun for them to see me lose my mind each morning.
You know what you won't find when you open my closets? Shoes. (see above) You know what else you won't find? Boy's coats. They despise wearing them. They would prefer that I wash their 3 Under Armour sweatshirts daily so they can wear those as coats. I got tired of hearing "Mom!? Why can't I just wear 4 layers of shirts and sweatshirts?" So, I gave up on coats.
Good God. Why can't my children smell themselves? I've lost count of how many times I have walked by my children and had to stop, lean closer, sniff them and then banish them to another shower. "Did you use deodorant this morning?" I always ask. "Oh. No. I forgot. Oops." Every. Damn. Day. How they have friends is beyond me. Perhaps they all smell like dirty feet.
If a ball makes its way inside my house, my boys seem to be programmed by their mother ship to throw the ball inside the house as much as possible and as close as possible to all things breakable. Lamps. Chandeliers. Mirrors. Anything delicate and expensive will be in the direct path of the ball.
I think the Alien Code of Conduct states that all plastic water bottles must be left 1/3 filled to maximize the ability of said bottles to be flipped and capped, bonus points for dabbing after capping it. If you have 15 almost empty water bottles scattered throughout your house or you find yourself shouting “Stop with the bottles!!!” then you probably live with aliens.
Someday I will conduct and publish a study about how the IQ of pre-adolescent boys drops significantly whenever they are in groups. The more boys there are in the group, the lower the group's IQ. Each time they get together, I find myself saying something along the lines of "Remember all those crazy things you got in trouble for last time? Don't do those again this time" and then I try to look at the environment and see what crazy decisions they can make this time. Inevitably I forget something...
So, what’s the best way to approach the difficult task of raising aliens?
1. Don’t try to see the world through their eyes.
You’ll hurt yourself.
2. Pick your battles.
You need to conserve your energy when it comes to aliens.
3. Learn to speak their language.
Yes, this may mean that you need to learn how to flip bottles, dab, juju on that beat, whip and even nae nae.
4. Utilize their communication systems.
You may need to become proficient in things like Musicly and Snapchat so you can monitor their interactions and make sure your alien is not being a jerky alien.
5. Stockpile deodorant.
You never know when your little alien might need some extra deodorant so it’s a good idea to keep a few spares around.
6. Invest in a good washing machine.
You’ll need it to keep up with the alien stench that arises when they forget the aforementioned deodorant.
7. Hold on tight.
Love your little alien fiercely and take advantage of all the moments you have with them. Snuggle them when they let you. Hold their hand when they let you. Lay in their stinky alien bed at night before they drift off to sleep and talk about their day with them. Time moves faster when you are raising an alien – hold onto it before it slips away.
For more blog entries on raising aliens (and boys), be sure to check out the links below:
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