Raising A Teenager Is Like Having A Swarm Of Bees In Your Chest

Dear Friend (that feels right to say),

This isn’t actually a letter to my son. Why? Because teenagers don’t read heartfelt letters from their mothers, and that’s the truth. And it’s not a love letter, either. It’s a hard read, actually, and it’s for you.

My son turned 16 yesterday. And like his 5th and 10th and 13th birthdays, it felt…significant. But it was more than just the number that felt significant. I felt the day coming well in advance in myself, too.

When my son turned 13, I wrote him a letter.

It was a little bit like having a busy cloud of bees in my chest – not stinging but moving. Urgently. Fast. Initially, it felt almost like anxiety but even more so like anticipation.

As the days passed, I continued to think a lot about how I was feeling. When you have teenagers, you have a lot of time to think and not a lot of time to talk.

So I sat with the bees and observed them.

There was definitely anticipation – a dash of excitement – but also some uncertainty. Some sadness. And I didn’t – and mostly still don’t – know what any of it meant. So I just held it, held it in my chest where it seemed to want to live. Because what else can you do when you don’t know how to define a thing?

When the birthday arrived, I felt much like I did when my mother died: a mouth full of words, a deep desire to say them and  no one to hear.

Maybe it was the bees trying to get out. (Wouldn’t that be nice?) But I held them back.

I’m sorry to say my son’s 16th birthday didn’t contain much fanfare. The date fell on a school day, and he didn’t want a party with his friends. The week’s schedule didn’t allow for a family dinner, and I’m fairly certain it would have been a nightmare anyway with twin two year-olds in tow.

Isn’t 16 supposed to be a big deal? Significant – wasn’t that the description?

I got him a gym membership, so he could escape the house, and I started a retirement account for him. Logically. Then I bought him a slice of cookie cake and took him to an R-rated movie that was basically about mental illness. His request.

We sat in silence on the way to the movie. It was awkward and unnatural for me, but I was proud to practice my “don’t talk all the time, Mom” act and “just be shoulder-to-shoulder” with my son. It felt good and honoring to leave space for him to just be himself, and I felt strong and generous for being able to do it.

Then we sat in silence on the way back – except when he interrupted my weak attempt to share my thoughts about the movie. He spoke up to correct my use of a word. Commodity.

And through all of this, I held the bees.

When I got home, my husband was in bed, and the birthday boy went upstairs for a shower – school night. That was it.

I found myself standing alone in the dark, more than a little bewildered, after a disturbing movie and in the wake of a weird debate with my man-child about the meaning of a word. Just me and the bees.

And they were stirring.

This is when I knew for sure that the bees were words, and they were fighting to get out.

But I couldn’t let them…because they were sad.

Courtesy of Jennifer Bonessi

Why am I telling you all this, Friend? Goodness, why am I?

Well, first, I’m telling you this because the bees made me do it. I couldn’t keep them in any longer. What is that beautiful Maya Angelou quote – “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

It was agony to carry the bees any longer.

But really, I think someone needs to start talking about what it feels like to be in this season of motherhood.

It. Is. Hard.

Relationships with teenage sons are hard. No matter how much you love them – because there is no lack of love. I have oodles of love for this kid. I’m dripping with it.

But it does not matter if your teen is a talker or not talker. It doesn’t matter if you used to be close and connected and suddenly aren’t. It doesn’t matter if you fill them with sugar and take them to R-rated movies.

It doesn’t matter how much love you are carrying in your heart for your son, that it weighs a million pounds, that you are dying to tell him about it in a way he can actually hear you. It just doesn’t matter.

Okay, all the history of goodness and intentions of goodness, in this season, does matter. But. It doesn’t make things easier.

Friend, if you are all up in the hard stuff, and you don’t know why other parents aren’t struggling to figure out how they fit into their teenager’s lives, THEY ARE.

If you are wondering why your fellow mommas aren’t fighting to sit quietly with their teen (because talking to a teenager could be talking to your best friend or a hornets’ nest), THEY ARE.

If you are wondering how other parents seem unbothered by watching their teen struggle in this hard season of their own lives, THEY ARE BOTHERED. It’s hard to watch a human grow and learn big life lessons. SO. Hard.

If you are wondering why no one else seems to be concerned about how to bridge an ever-widening gap in their relationships with their kid, THEY ARE. Some are bewildered, Friend, and some are panicked – the rest are likely oblivious a gap has appeared.

You are not alone. It’s happening to all of us.

Also, this time will pass. Things will change. I know that.

Do you?

Thank you, thank you, Friend. I think I’m ready to write that letter to the birthday boy now. This sweet boy deserves to hear how much his momma loves him. Even if he won’t hear it, really, until (a lot) later in his life.

Stay tuned, if you’d like, for the release of the bees.

Soldier on, Fellow Mommas. You’ve got this!

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I Used To Hate Smug Moms Of Older Kids — But Now I Am One

I’d see them walking past the playground but never actually on it. They’d be out and about with their upper elementary or middle school-aged children seemingly without a care in the world. Or they’d be laughing with another SMOK friend while their children ran ahead or lagged behind.

They weren’t pushing strollers. They weren’t holding anybody’s hand crossing the street. They weren’t rooting through a diaper bag for a Band Aid or tissue. They were unencumbered, apart from maybe a stylish tote with a baguette peeking out of it. They were Smug Moms of Older Kids (SMOKs, I dubbed them) and I hated them.

If I got close enough, I could hear that they were having actual conversations with their children. These were no toddler-tantrum negotiations or numbingly boring uh-huh type exchanges, the sorts of which I was mired in; the SMOKS were talking animatedly with their articulate children about a Broadway show they’d seen or a school project a child was doing without parental assistance or even, wait for it…the news.

I’d watch them walk past while I was half-heartedly pushing a swing (“Pump your legs!”) and talking about dumb preschool drama (“I’m sure you’ll all be friends again tomorrow!) and I’d want to Go Go Squeeze my eyeballs out. Sometimes, I’d make eye contact with a SMOK. I’d try to shake the veggie sticks crumbs from my hair or sneak on some lip gloss—“I’m hideous! Look away!”—but I’d also think, “Yeah, good for you, lady. You’re children are aging. Well done.”

Can you hear my slow sarcastic clap?

Clap. Clap. Clap.

Oh, how I loathed these moms!

Oh, how I envied them!

Through no fault of their own, they were simply women who’d set out on their motherhood journey years before I had (at an “advanced maternal age”). And now these SMOKs had arrived at a destination I longed to live in—a place where they never had to share a bathroom stall again. A place where everybody knew how to blow their own nose and could get their own breakfast and snacks. A tantrum-free zone where no one had to go to bed doing basic affirmations like, “I’m still me! I’m still a person!”

martinedoucet/Getty

When you’re in the trenches of motherhood, it’s hard to remember that sometimes.

You are still you! Still a person!

I’m pushing 50—not strollers—now. My children are (almost) 9 and 12. And I’ve become, somewhere along the way, the very sort of SMOK I so despised all those years ago. If I see you, Mother of a Small Child (MOSC), in a public restroom changing a diaper, I’ll avert my eyes because…gross. If I see you and your snotty toddler in a coffee shop, I will choose a seat as far away from you as is humanly possible. It’s a weird sort of reversal of the ole “There but for the grace of god go I” feeling. Because I’ve been there.

Maybe you’re loving your life with small children! Maybe you look at me—and you may even see me out in the neighborhood by myself because I’ve left my children home alone!—and think how lucky you are that your offspring are precious sticky littles who require you for pretty much everything. Maybe you love cutting grapes in half and wiping butts that are not your own. Maybe you see me and think I must be lonely when my children are both off hanging out with friends (SMOKS don’t use the word “playdate” anymore) and that I probably spend a lot of time thinking about menopause…and maybe I do!

But wow do I like being able to send my 12-year-old to the store. I like not having to hire a babysitter if my husband and I want to pop out for a quick dinner, just the two of us. I like weekend afternoons where it’s possible to pick up a book and read for an hour—just me, a book of my choosing. I like never having to go to another playground again just to try to burn up a day. I love hearing about all the cool things my kids are doing in the world without me and telling them about what I’ve been up to, too.

For some moms, I think loving the phase you’re in is a coping mechanism. And if it that works, then great, but it didn’t really work for me back on the playground. And I think it’s also okay to finally admit that I’m more suited for this job than I was for that one. Maybe that’s why the SMOKs always bothered me so much. They had something I wanted. And it wasn’t the baguette.

I have a lot of SMOK friends now. On occasion, one of them catch a whiff of a baby and say something ridiculous like, “I wish we could go back.” And I’ll say, “No you don’t” and she’ll say, “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t.”

That’s what we’re laughing about when we walk past the playground.

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I’m Terrified My Son Won’t Graduate High School

I’ve never been one to use the parent portal the schools offer other than a quick check once a month or so. I believe my kids need to take responsibility for their work like I did in school. I don’t believe they need the teachers’ reminders nor mine. I want them to learn how to schedule their time wisely and, for me, that means I take a hands-off approach and let them endure consequences.

Up until last year, my kids were doing just fine without me micromanaging them. We had the occasional missed assignment that they’d scramble to hand in late, not liking the reduced grade that was staring back at them. My plan was working the way I wanted it to — until it didn’t.

When my son was a sophomore, I noticed a shift in his behaviors and schoolwork. Eventually, I got an email alerting me he was failing history class a few weeks before school was out. This wasn’t just from doing poorly on work. It was not doing the work at all. The half-finished assignments were found at the bottom of his backpack and his teacher said it was too late to hand them in. One of them dated back a month.

When I confronted him about it, he acted as if he didn’t care and it wasn’t that big of a deal. His father and I took away his phone and friend time as punishment hoping he’d learn his lesson.

He ended up failing the class and is taking it again this year as a junior.

Because of his rocky conclusion to last school year, my ex-husband and I are on top of things checking that damn portal every day. School started last month. As of a few weeks ago, he was failing three classes.

To say I wanted to lose my shit on him is an understatement. He stared at me blankly as I told him his life would not be pretty if he failed out of high school. He literally couldn’t care less and I’m struggling with how to get through to him. 

My son is smart. When he puts effort in, he gets As. Right now, he has an A in chemistry but is failing math, history, and psychology. Again, the reason is because he’s not handing in work and I’m just don’t understand his laziness and the reasoning behind it.

His teacher said to me, “He’s only handed in one assignment out of the seven that have been due this year and got a 40 on the last test.” One. OUT OF SEVEN.

It’s as if he’s working hard to fail, or he thinks the rules don’t apply to him.

He obviously doesn’t realize the consequences. So, I came down hard on him deciding I’d paint a picture of what his life would look like if he didn’t graduate high school.

At 16, he’s anxious to get his license, start working, and buy a car. I told him while he is old enough to do all those things, they are still privileges that need to be earned. The only way he’s going to earn them is to buckle down and get caught up.

He sent in for his date to take his driver’s test — it’s in one week and I told him if he wants to take his scheduled test, he needs to hand in all late work by then. He also interviewed for a job, which he got and is supposed to start very soon. Again, I told him he’ll have to turn it down if he can’t pull it together at school before then.

If he cannot keep up with school work and take school seriously, there’s no way in hell he can handle having a job or driving a car. I can’t in good conscience allow him to work part-time during the school year unless he can keep up with his school work. I am not asking for As; I’m asking for effort and responsibility and meeting deadlines. You know, basic human life skills he is going to learn if it kills me.

He was pissed and stormed around for a day. Then I picked him up from school last week and he said he talked to his teachers. He got his assignments and is working to get them done.

But I’m still worried. I’ve lost sleep and can feel the tension in my whole body. While other parents are bragging on their kids about college visits and AP classes, I just want mine to fucking graduate. I want to encourage him and send the message that he can do this, yet I feel like I need to threaten to take away his privileges so he knows how serious this can be. I hope it works.

Just like every new obstacle we face as parents, all I can do is my best and hope it all falls into place. However, this is our biggest one yet. It is impacts his whole life. 

I have to believe in him though. I have to believe in his stamina, and I have to believe in mine.

In the meantime, I’ll be momming my ass off trying not tear my hair out. I don’t want to be the “mean mom” and take away his teenage freedoms — like a job and his driver’s license — but I will. It is truly might be the only way he’s going to earn that diploma.

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5 Things My Son Needs To Know Before He’s An Adult

I have a son and a daughter. There are many lessons I want both of them to learn, lessons that apply to all people regardless of gender, like work hard, be kind, and don’t put up anyone’s with bullshit. But because we still have a long way to go to reach gender equality in this country, there are some lessons that are even more critical for my son to absorb than my daughter.

The thought of my son’s future spouse hanging with friends and bemoaning how clearly my son’s mother (me!) must have done everything for him because he’s useless and dependent, or of anyone holding up my son as an example of toxic masculinity makes me almost break out in hives. Over my dead body will my son go out into the world as some privileged, entitled man-baby incapable of giving a shit about anyone’s needs but his own.

So here are the 5 lessons that my son must learn before he leaves my care:

1. If you made the mess, you clean the mess.

This seems like it should be an inherently obvious rule of being a human, and yet, based on my own life experience and the results of many studies, it seems far too many men manage to stumble into adulthood thinking that somebody else will clean up after them.

Of course, I think my son should help with after dinner cleanup and should be scrubbing toilets and doing laundry just as much as his partner. It seems obvious that you should participate in cleaning the place where you reside. And yet, according to comment threads on social media, too many men don’t even do that much.

I want my son to do his part around the house and then some. I want him to also clean up his figurative messes — to offer a sincere apology when he hurts someone (apology is an action, not a word), to make amends, to learn from his mistakes and do better. Regardless of the type of mess he makes, I expect him to clean it up.

2. What people think of you matters (but it’s not everything).

I want my son to have confidence in himself and not care what other people say or think. I want him to stand by his principles and act without concern for peer pressure or social expectations.

But I also want him to be aware that, especially with the prevalence of social media today, a person’s reputation can very much proceed them. I want my son to behave in a way that leaves a positive impression on other people. I want him to leave the energy of the room better than how he found it. I never want him to be the reason for a girl — or anyone — to feel uncomfortable in their skin. I want him to be kind and generous in a way that makes it hard not to like him. To do good for people without an ulterior motive.

I want him to understand that when no one can say anything bad about you, when the dropping of your name causes other people to smile, that this puts you in a position to have a happier life. A solid friend group, a reliable professional network, and people to call on if ever it’s your turn to need help.

3. It’s not a woman’s job to take care of you.

As recently as this morning, my son was looking for something … but not really looking for it. He asked me and his sister to help him look. I told him to look more carefully and to not expect a woman to do his looking for him. “If you want to find it bad enough,” I told him, “you’ll open your eyes and use them.”

The internet is filled with jokes and memes about how men can’t find anything and how women always have to be the ones to find things. This is ridiculous to me because it only happens at home. For hundreds of years men did just fine in the workplace without women around to find whatever it is they were looking for. My son will go out into the world fully capable of finding his own shit.

And he’d better also not succumb to the “man cold.” My teenage son already puts on the biggest show of anybody in the family when he catches a cold. No, dude. We all got the same cold. Take some medicine and deal with it just like the rest of us have done. I’ve told him he better not pull that whiny crap with his future spouse, either. Ick.

To be clear, I know I’m generalizing in heteronormative terms here, and that any relationship whether straight or gay could have one partner taking advantage of the other and becoming selectively helpless. But, statistically, past generations’ males have entered adulthood expecting their female partners to take on a mothering role. And that’s gross. I want my son to be an equal partner with whomever he ends up with.

4. Speak up, loudly, for the marginalized.

My son is privileged in many ways. He’s growing up in a financially stable situation, attends school in the top school district in our state, and has a vast community of family and friends who support him and want the best for him. He’s Latino, but as far as I know has never faced discrimination for this. He has nearly every advantage a person could want to get a head start in life. He is not in the margins. I want him to speak up for those who are. His privilege affords him the ability to lose very little by defending the safety and rights of others who don’t have the same privileges he does.

Speaking up looks like stepping in when he sees someone bullying or harassing a marginalized person, being outspoken when he witnesses someone else’s rights being threatened or violated, and showing up to vote. I want him to know that as a person with immense privilege, it is his duty to use that privilege to help other marginalized voices be heard.

5. Being kind and generous will get you far. (And if it doesn’t, you’re in the wrong place.)

This goes hand in hand with #2. I want my son to know that if he’s kind and generous, he’ll develop a reputation for it, and that positive reputation will come in handy when he needs connections or advice or help.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when someone is a shit human being, people tend not to want to work with that person. Yes, there are industries where being aggressive and cut-throat gets you success, but I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want the chase for financial success to eat away at his goodness. I don’t want greed to breed toxicity in his life. There is a way to be both good and successful, and I expect my son to find it.

I want my son to be strong and confident but also to understand his privilege and know when to de-center himself. I want him to be independent and to take responsibility for his actions. Basically, I want my son to be a good human being. And I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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Let’s Bring Back Home Economics Class

“Hey, Mom, do we have a double boiler?” my 12-year-old son asked me the other day.

“Ummm…no,” I said, trying to remember what a double boiler even is, and whether or not I’ve ever used one. “I think you can just make one yourself using a pot and a mixing bowl…or something like that?”

“Oh, okay,” he said. “But we should really consider getting one. We made brownies from scratch in F.A.C.S today and actually melting real chocolate made them so good.”

“F.A.C.S” stands for Family and Consumer Sciences, the modern-day Home Ec class that my son has been taking this semester at his middle school. Almost every day, he comes home telling me about some new yummy food he cooked, the “cool” cooking equipment he used, or some other cute and endearing story about his adventures in measuring, mixing, cooking, and cleaning up.

Let me tell you, when I found out that my son’s middle school required all seventh graders to take Home Ec, a part of me rolled my eyes hard. When I was a kid, Home Ec was also required, but I mostly remember it as a class that I thought was super dorky — a total blow-off class that no one took seriously.

And despite the fact that both girls and boys took the class when I was in middle school, I remember my mom telling me that back in the day, only girls were required to take it, so I immediately branded it as totally sexist.

I was sure that my son – who loves math and video games with a passion, and who acts like wiping down the kitchen table after dinner is equal to actual torture – would feel the same way I did. But surprisingly (although he may not admit it!), his F.A.C.S. class seems to one of the highlights of his day.

Not only that, but he’s learning actual life skills … you know, skills he’ll use long after middle school is a distant memory.

Besides learning how to use a double-broiler, he’s learning how to read a recipe, how to prep the stove for cooking, how to measure stuff and use measuring equipment, how to crack an egg (this was big for him, because he would never let me teach him how!), how to follow a recipe correctly — and most importantly, how to clean up after himself when he’s done.

It’s more than that, too. He works on teams with his fellow students on these cooking projects, so he’s learning about cooperation and teamwork. My son has told me that respectful communication is emphasized in the class as much as teamwork around the execution of the recipes.

After this unit, the kids are going to learn about etiquette, nutrition, and career exploration. And get this: the kids are going to spend a unit completing a few sewing projects – yep, on a real live sewing machine.

I am just so overjoyed about all of this. Not only are these skills all kids need to know (even sewing comes in handy sometimes!), but many are skills I have failed to properly teach my son. I mean, I ask him if he wants to help me make dinner, and I occasionally force him to wash a few dishes, but he really doesn’t know his way around the kitchen like he should.

Honestly, most domestic-type skills are just plain annoying to him. But for some reason, not when they’re taught at school. Somehow, getting to cook and bake and clean up is really cool when you get to do it at school. Who knew?

With the stress placed so heavily on academics these days, I am very happy for my son to have a hands-on, practical class built into his schedule. In addition to all the real-life benefits and applications of the class, it’s a much-needed break from the pressure of his other classes.

Interestingly, my son’s school is one of a dwindling group still offering Home Ec. According to NPR, the number of Home Ec classes has sharply declined; in the decade leading up to 2012, the number of schools offering Home Ec dropped by 38%.

The reason for this, as NPR explains it, is partly that there are fewer teachers entering the family and consumer science profession. But it’s also because of budget cuts, and the fact that schools are allocating their funds more toward academic coursework and away from “life skills” classes like Home Ec.

Gayla Randal, an educational and program consultant for the Kansas State Department of Education, explained why she thinks Home Ec has dropped out of favor in the United States over the past decade.

“Society couldn’t get over the stereotype of the home economics teacher,” she told NPR. “Anything that wasn’t about a test score was scrutinized,” she added, referencing No Child Left Behind and the rapid increase of standardized tests.

Yet teachers and most parents agree that Home Ec teaches skills that are necessary to be a highly functioning adult. To me, “life skills” should be as much a goal in education as learning algebra. When was the last time you actually used algebra in real life? On the other hand, I’m sure you’ve completed at least one task in your kitchen today.

Clearly, some of our kids aren’t learning this basic stuff from us.

“Sometimes we take for granted that kids know how to wash dishes,” Susan Turgeson, president of the Association of Teacher Educators for family and consumer sciences told NPR. “I never thought I was going to have to explain, step by step, how to put the drain plug in, the amount of soap to be used.”

Ummm, yeah, my son has absolutely no clue what a drain plug is or how to soak a sink of dishes. Sigh.

As a mom raising two boys, I feel like it’s even more pressing that my sons learn these skills. I like that Home Ec is a required, graded class for kids at my son’s school. It underlines the fact that domestic skills are just as important as what he learns in any other class.

I’m sure as heck not raising a man who can’t cook a decent meal, work the stove, or wash the dishes. NOPE.

So, let’s bring back Home Ec. everywhere, please? Thankfully, we are past the stage of believing that only girls need to learn these skills. But if these are skills that everyone should know, well then, teach ‘em to everyone!

Our kids will be better off as students, as adults, as partners, as future parents, and just better overall citizens of the world.

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Instead Of Shutting Your Kid Down, Try The ‘What’s Your Plan?’ Approach

Like many parents, I can see an accident happening several minutes before it actually happens. My daughter is swinging dangerously close to my fresh cup of hot coffee with her blanket cape. My son is riding his bike on the sidewalk but looking up at the sky rather than at the sidewalk in front of him. My daughter is pulling a chair up to the cabinet preparing to climb up, but I can see one of the legs has gone into a crack in the tile, making the chair wobbly. My son is talking and gesticulating wildly at the dinner table, his cup full of milk an inch from the table’s edge.

I know how all these scenarios are going to end. It has even been a running joke in my family that I’ll say, “Watch out, you are about to…” and then the thing I’m about to say will happen happens before I can even get a chance to get all the words out of my mouth. So my kids think I have the ability to predict the future. They take it semi-seriously actually, and will usually stop whatever they’re doing once I express a concern.

But sometimes I wonder if I am too overprotective. I do keep my distance when they’re trying something new, at least, but it’s hard to just sit there and keep my mouth shut when I know someone’s about to get hurt or spill something. But I worry that my intervening might make them dependent upon my foresight rather than their own.

I came across something on Facebook the other day that got me thinking about this again. The suggestion was that, rather than choosing the extreme of either pointing out what’s about to go wrong or zipping your mouth shut and letting the thing happen, you can simply ask, “What’s your plan?”

Love this via The Gentle Mamma

Posted by Wilder Child on Monday, August 26, 2019

It’s kind of perfect. This approach allows parents to bring attention to the fact that perhaps the current trajectory of the situation is not the most desirable one, while giving the child a chance to evaluate the situation for themselves. It might be that they are perfectly in control and can prove as much to you. Or it might be that they really are out of control and need to check themselves, and this gives them that opportunity. Either way, asking a child “What’s your plan?” gives them the chance to exercise their autonomy and try out their planning skills to determine what they should do next.

I can see this working for me in just about all the scenarios I listed above, and then some. With my daughter looking to gain access to a higher cabinet, asking her what her plan is could get her to carefully assess the stability of the chair before climbing on it.

If my son is procrastinating with getting his homework done, I don’t have to nag him and tell him what I think is going to happen (that he won’t finish in time; that he’ll turn it in late; that he’ll get a bad grade). I can simply ask him what his plan is. Because he’s old enough to know the outcome of procrastination — me telling him all the potential outcomes is just nagging. “What’s your plan for homework?” allows him to consider whether he’s willing to risk turning that homework in late without me having to say as much. It puts him in charge of his own destiny.

In this age of helicopter parenting — or worse, lawnmower parenting — asking “What’s your plan?” is the antidote to over-involvement parents need. Although I have to be honest, I may never be able to stop myself from screeching at my kid to get away from my hot coffee — I’ve learned this lesson many times over that if I allow any excited behavior within a 10 foot radius of my coffee, the coffee is definitely going to get spilled. I guess that’s my plan for making sure I don’t end up losing my shit at my kids.

Thomas Barwick/Getty

But I can apply “What’s your plan?” to just about all situations where I think my kids might be heading in a direction where things won’t end well. This gives them a little bit of wiggle room to show me what their plan is. The cool thing is, questioning the plan can go in a positive direction whether your kid has a plan or not. If they really haven’t thought through the potential outcomes of whatever it is they’ve gotten themselves into, now they have been prompted to do that. But, if they have, now you get to hear the creative idea they had all along that you didn’t know about.

And, the likelihood is, just like that post I read on Facebook, our kids will probably surprise us more often than not. Just because they look like they’re doing something foolish, doesn’t mean they are. Or… it doesn’t mean they haven’t considered the potential fallout. Maybe they are perfectly aware of the potential consequences and want to do the foolish thing anyway. Maybe the failure is worth it to them. And maybe sometimes it’s our job as parents to let them learn in their own way, even when we’re sure we already know the outcome.

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My Middle Schooler Is Making My Life A Living Hell

I have two kiddos in high school, so I’m not new to this teenage shit show, but can we talk about how stressful this is? Oh, and newsflash, it doesn’t get easier just because you have been through it before, folks. I hate to deliver bad news, but I like to keep it real. Also, I need to talk to somebody about it. Somebody. ANYBODY.

I had no idea I could be so damn offensive I could be until I had a middle school-aged child. Apparently, everything I do these days is grounds for storming off or telling me how “cringey” I am. (When the fuck did cringey become a word, anyway)?

Courtesy of Katie Smith
 This includes but is not limited to asking him he packed his lunch, wants to go out for ice cream with me, or if he thinks he might want to attend the school dance. 

My middle school student is still holding onto qualities he had when he was three yet feels he’s big enough to be the boss of me. The two don’t really well and he’s making my life really hard. Also, your toddlers tantrums have nothing on a tweenager tantrum. Prepare yourself and don’t be afraid to reach out to friends asking them to bring Advil or wine. It helps.

He’s pretty quiet these days. By that I mean he ignores me at every turn. Except for when he wants to buy something to make his video-game career top notch. Or when he decides to tell me how annoying I am by blasting his favorite song and dancing.

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Apparently, he’s allowed to listen to it so loud the neighbors can hear the beat through his ear buds, but if I turn it on and show him my moves as a way to bond with him, I’m the most annoying creature that’s ever walked the land.

They know me by name at the grocery store because tweens can put away food, let e tell you. My son often resembles an aardvark dining on an ant feast as soon as I walk in with the house with the dozen bags of groceries I bring home every week. However, he likes to point out we never have any food. I’ve reminded him a few times that it’s because he’s eaten it all before it gets put away, but he hasn’t put two and two together yet. 

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He owns about five hoodies that get worn yet never land in laundry to get clean and apparently this is my fault too. Every morning he scurries around looking for a clean one and ignores the pile of dirty sweatshirts collection dust behind his door. 

In order to crack into his life, I have to ask lots of questions, which is a recipe to get blown off big time. But when you are the parent of a child in going through the middle school years, it’s the only way to get any information. Honestly, even then they don’t give up much except for the fact they don’t know anything.   

Me: “Did you have a good day?”

Middle schooler:” I don’t know.”

Me: Do you have homework?” 

Courtesy of Katie Smith

Middle schooler: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Did you turn in your math project we worked on last night that I handed you right before school and reminded you to turn in?”

Middle schooler: “I don’t know.”

Me: “What do you want for dinner?”

Middle schooler: “I don’t know.”

Oh, but he does know this one. As soon as I serve his favorite meal, he let’s me know he doesn’t want to eat “that garbage,” pouts for a while, and then asks if we can get fast food and is always surprised me answer in no. 

And can we talk about what master manipulators middle schoolers think they are? You ask them if their chores are done as they are deep in a screen and they will lie to your face even if you are standing next to the overflowing trash they were supposed to take out. 

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They have no problem telling you they are getting up, or are coming downstairs when they have no intention of doing so. 

As soon as you lay into them about it or take away their prized iPad they flop around, they say they are sorry (in the most smart-ass way possible), and make as many false promises as they can come up with.

Hugging, kissing, encouraging pats, and any other kind of affection (or breathing too close to them), send them running for the hills. Just when I think my son isn’t ever going to peel himself from the sofa, I reach out to rub his head and he practically gives himself whiplash moving out of the way. 

I get that middle school is hard on the kids, but let’s face it. It’s tough on the parents. I vote we start a support group for all of us called, “Let’s get through this middle school shit together.” I’m thinking we should all get matching hoodies too. Who’s in?

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My Teens Are Capable Of Doing Things On Their Own, But I Still Want To Do Some Things For Them

My son has been home sick for the past few days with a bad cold. At 16, he’s perfectly capable of heating up soup himself and slurping it down to ease his stuffy nose and sore throat—after all, he’s been playing video games all day. But still I make the soup. And he certainly doesn’t need me to find his favorite blanket that disappeared sometime last spring, but I dug around for it and bundled him up like I used to when he was little and getting settled for his nap.

He doesn’t argue with me. He knows he won’t win this battle. It doesn’t matter if he’s almost 200 pounds and has six inches on me. I insist on doing certain things and he knows I am going to do them for his sake, but mostly for mine.

There are mornings when one of my kids wakes up and I see them rushing around, trying to find things in the pantry so they can get some lunch thrown in their backpack even though I’ve told them time and time again they should pack it the night before. I tell them to go upstairs to finish getting ready and I’ll get their lunch.

Yes, my three kids have all reached teenage status and can do most things on their own. I’ve taught them how to do laundry, clean toilets, and cook things like grilled cheese and pasta.

But there are times I see their favorite sweatshirt slung in the backseat of the car, knowing they’ve forgotten about it, and I throw it in the wash for them so they will have it the next day. There are times when I’m rushing out the door to make some appointment but I still prepare their favorite meal first. And I’ve been known to walk in their bathroom in shambles — with towels on the floor, their Q-tip container empty, and zero toilet paper on the roll — and I make it nice in there for them again. (I have to be feeling really fine to do this one for them, but when I’ve done it, I feel extra in love with them.)

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I am all about raising independent, self-sufficient kids who don’t think they were brought into this world to be served by their mother.

I am also all about showing them how much I really care about them. This is how I do it these days.

It’s killing me a little bit that they don’t need me as much as they used to. I thought these years would feel like freedom and I’d be doing a Julie Andrews spin on the top of a mountain Sound of Music style. But that’s not how it’s going down.

Making them a sandwich takes me back to the afternoons when they were little and the sound of cartoons filled the house each afternoon. Times when I still cut the bread in little triangles, and stuff my youngest son’s peanut butter and jelly full of potato chips and crunch it all down really flat.

Doing their laundry and folding their hoodies takes me back to washing their onesies and tiny socks.

Throwing soup in the microwave and getting my son’s favorite blanket and wrapping his body up like a taco when he has a runny nose and sore throat makes me feel like I am passing my love onto him and, honestly, I don’t get to do that as much as I used to.

The absence of the physical labor it takes to raise my teens has been replaced by mental labor for sure. They duck away from my hugs. They aren’t interested in holding hands. They don’t ask for bedtime stories or if I’ll lie on the floor with them to watch a movie.

I worry. I ask too many questions. Right now, I am not as important to them as I once was. I know it, and it’s okay.

But in order to deal with all of it, I still need to show them I love them—it’s a natural urge for all parents regardless of their kids’ age. I’ve told my kids over and over they can let me do things for them without putting up a fight. I’ve earned the right to do something special for them whenever I choose.

These days, all I can do is show my love by cleaning their bathroom once in a while, or telling them to sleep in a bit and I’ll make their lunch. They don’t want me make a fort or do a craft project with them.

Those days are gone and have left a void. I try to fill it with potato chip-stuffed sandwiches and washing their clothes and leaving them folded neatly on the bed — and honestly, these tasks are so much more fun when you don’t have to do them but simply want to.

I’m certainly that mom who spews “If you want it, get it/do it yourself” most of the time just so my kids don’t forget who really runs this place.

But every once in a while, I show my love through doing things for them they are completely capable of doing themselves and I’m not stopping anytime soon.

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I’ve Struggled With An Eating Disorder And I Worry My Daughters Will Too

The topic of eating disorders comes up frequently in conversations at my house. I have three daughters, two of whom are teens, but I never imagined having so many conversations so soon.

Twenty-some years have passed since I struggled with an eating disorder, which for me involved severely restricting my diet and exercising compulsively. I always planned to tell my girls about my own eating disorder (ED)…someday.

That someday came sooner than I thought. I recently co-edited a book of essays about eating disorder recovery, and my kids are curious. They saw my essay lying around and wanted to understand more. Why are you writing about eating disorders?

Now the topic of eating disorders emerges frequently in our conversation. My oldest daughter recently came home and shared that girls at her school talk about starving themselves to achieve the body they think will make them happy. At that moment I felt relieved we had already developed a dialogue about the issue. If we hadn’t already talked discussed ED, would she have felt comfortable talking about it with me?

Sometimes, however, I fear we have gone too far. When my one daughter decides to eat berries instead of ice cream after dinner, her sister accuses her of developing an eating disorder.

Dealing with eating disorders is incredibly tricky. Am I helping to prevent an eating disorder by encouraging open dialogue? Or do we talk about it too much? Will our frequent conversations somehow encourage them to develop an ED?

There is a genetic component to eating disorders, so my worries are justified. As eating disorder researcher and UNC Professor Cynthia Bulik says, “genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger.”

For the past fifteen years, I have worked to provide an environment with as few triggers as possible. I have changed the way I talk about food and my body, refusing to make comments that had once been commonplace, comments like, “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” or “I feel so fat.” I have also avoided exerting control during mealtimes because EDs are often linked with a need for control.

I worry, though, that my efforts might not be enough to prevent an eating disorder. Not only can I not control what triggers my kids encounter at school or on social media, I can’t even control the ways they trigger each other, despite my best efforts. No matter how many times I tell my daughters to build one another up, they still can be cruel, and they still sometimes make disparaging comments about one another’s bodies.

Are these comments enough to trigger a disorder? Have they already?

I worry. And, in addition to worrying, I experience massive guilt for the stress I put my own parents through. I know they suffered feelings of anguish and helplessness as they tried to figure out whether what began as a health kick was truly healthy. I know they worried endlessly when they sent me back to college when I was losing weight, with no way of monitoring my eating and exercise habits.

Parents of a child with an ED suffer on so many levels. It’s bad enough they make themselves crazy trying to figure out whether a child’s newfound desire to become healthier is an admirable practice or a precursor to something nefarious. Even worse, they tend to blame themselves when a problem does develop.

Should I worry that my daughter has decided to eat fruit instead of ice cream for dessert, or should I praise her desire to be healthy? A case can easily be made for either response.

As a more-paranoid-than-average mom, my reaction is to try to surreptitiously monitor their eating at home to make sure they’re not taking healthy eating too far. I hope I’ll be able to catch a potential problem, but I’m realistic. I’ve been there.

I know what happens to a mind hijacked by anorexia. It makes a person do things they would never ordinarily do; it makes them deceive those around them and hide their behaviors for as long as possible to prevent getting caught. It builds a seemingly insurmountable wall between loved ones.

The experience of having lived through an eating disorder doesn’t make parenting daughters any easier. I know I can’t prevent my children from developing an eating disorder any more than I can prevent other catastrophes.

So, I do what I know how to do: I talk.

I share with them my experiences, and I discuss with them the potentially disastrous consequences of focusing on body image and weight loss.

I try to model healthy eating and exercise habits.

I talk to them about how the photographs they see are filtered and photoshopped to make celebrities appear perfect.

I work to build them up through comments about what their bodies can do instead of what their bodies look like.

I praise them for all their wonderful qualities that have nothing to do with their bodies.

And I do what every other parent does: I love my kids and guide them when I can. Then I hope and pray for the best.

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I’m Sick And Tired Of The Screen Time Battle

I don’t want to speak for all parents, but I know with complete certainty that if I took my hand off the wheel, my children would use screens 100% of the time. They wouldn’t get dressed, and they wouldn’t go to school, and they wouldn’t interact with real people. They’d just sit there in front of a glowing tablet, half dressed, eating chips and string cheese, like mindless zombies.

My son is 12, and he’s the worst with this. No doubt about it. He doesn’t have ADHD or any other learning challenges. He is simply borderline addicted to video games and YouTube, like so many 2019 children. He cannot get enough screen time. He asks and asks for screen time to the point that it’s become the refrain of my adult life.

We’ve even turned screen time into currency, and he has to earn hours on devices by finishing his chores and doing homework. And yet, even with a clear path to get screen time, he’s always negotiating for more. I ask him to do something additional to help out the family, and his first response is “how much screen time can I get.”

He isn’t all that interested in money. He doesn’t want to get paid for his labor; he only wants screens. And I’ll be honest, this makes me nervous, because I don’t know what his life is going to look like when I am not there to say, “It’s time to shut that thing down and do something else.”

In a lot of ways it feels like we have the problem handled for now, but after reading a recent article in CNBC by Nir Eyal, author of “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” I’m starting to wonder if I should be taking a different approach.

According to Eyal, “[I]n the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: Those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves ‘indistractable.’”

In order to get our children to grow up indistractable, they are going to need to figure out how to manage their own screen time. Sadly, I think this is one of the biggest challenges of raising children right now. (Again it’s important to note that this is in reference to screen time distractions, not diagnosed learning challenges.)

I work at a university, and it is not uncommon for me to see students enter with respectable to outstanding high school GPAs and test scores, only to flunk out within a year because they are so addicted to gaming. I cannot teach a class, or even present in front of a group of students without repeatedly asking them to put their phones away.

Eyal has a number of tips on how to create indistractable children, all of them center on the idea of open conversation with our children, and teaching them how to set their own limits when it comes to online distractions. According to Eyal, “The most important thing is to involve the child in the conversation and help them set their own rules. When parents impose limits without their kids’ input, they are setting them up to be resentful and incentivizing them to cheat the system.”

Cheating the system is exactly what I’m finding with my son. He is always on the lookout for some way to sneak in some additional screen time. But the question is: if I ask my son to set his own limits, would he ask for no limits? Maybe… probably.

According to Eyal, there are two things you need to be open with your children about when it comes to getting them to set their own screen time limitations. The first is to help them understand that people who benefit from online entertainment are interested in keeping you online. That’s their goal because that’s how they make money. Teach your children that although they obviously enjoy being online, they need to recognize that they are falling into an attention trap, and that they need to be smarter than that.

Second, when discussing screen time limitations, be real with them. Discuss how many hours there are in the day. Discuss that time online can take away from the time needed to do well in school, participate in sports, and enjoy the company of friends and family. Treat your child like an adult, lay out all the factors, and allow them to make a rational decision and set their own boundaries based on the information they are presented with.

Then, get into the details with them. Ask how they plan to hold themselves accountable. Are they going to set a timer? At what point are parents going to step in? Will it be when grades begin to slip? Or will it be when they have noticed they have been online for too long?

The most important part is helping your child understand all the factors and what is at stake early on. This in turn gives them the skills they need to hold themselves accountable — and ultimately, God willing — allow them to become indistractable as an adult, when you aren’t around to tell them to “put the screens down.”

After reading all of this, my plan is to try it out with my son. My wife and I are going to sit him down this weekend and discuss all the factors. We are going to give him the option to pick his own screen time limitations based on his own busy schedule. I think he will get it, and I’m hopeful that this will be the first step in helping him become less distractible as an adult.

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