Why Older Siblings Are The Unsung Heroes Of The Pandemic

Today, as I sat with my kindergartener during yet another hellish attempt to navigate her online classes complete with multiple tabs filled with YouTube videos, Google docs, classroom meets and school centered apps I felt my patience (and my sanity) slipping away. Quickly after announcing, “I’m DONE! We will try again later!” my oldest swooped in to save the day.

This was just one of the many times this past year that he has jumped at the opportunity to help his younger siblings complete their online school work. He’s been incredibly intuitive when it comes to noticing when I’m at the end of my rope. He has literally saved the day on more than one occasion and I could not be more grateful for him.

As he helped her navigate between video clips, sound out words, and type out phrases to complete her assignment, I realized that if it hadn’t been for him, there is no way I would have made it through this year of intense challenges, especially those that came along with e-learning. I consider myself pretty tech savvy, but I don’t hold a candle to the instinctive way my oldest son is capable of putting out the multiple fires that pop up on the various devices they need to access throughout the school day. He’s truly gifted (as many of our kids tend to be in this regard) when it comes to computer/technology programs and the multitude of potential malfunctions that may occur, because he’s been exposed to these kinds of programs ever since the day he was born. For him, this is second-nature.

For me, a lot of the ways kids learn and complete assignments these days is like a completely foreign language made of hieroglyphics and emoticons. When I was in 3rd grade, we were practicing cursive letters by piling shaving cream onto our desks and drawing them out with our fingertips. We carried the “1” in math and weren’t allowed to use calculators at all. When he was in 3rd grade, he was learning computer coding and how to make powerpoint presentations and record podcasts. He does math in a way that I imagine astronomers calculate things like the speed of light and the space-time continuum. They are encouraged to play around with scientific calculator features to help them understand how to use them. Something I wasn’t permitted to or expected to even own until my freshman year of high school. It’s a different kind of schooling, and I was not prepared to be the one responsible for executing the lesson plans at home, all day, every day, for an entire year.

Cue my little savior. He embodies pride when he is able to help his siblings, but more than that, he is able to communicate the lessons to them in a way that is easy for them to understand because he speaks their language. And he had just learned these things in the last few years, after the educational system did a complete overhaul on how it delivers math, reading, and science to children. He has patience because he knows what it’s like to be frustrated when you can’t sound out a word, but he also has tricks up his sleeve to help his younger siblings push past their mental roadblocks because he learned those recently, too.

If it wasn’t for my oldest having some knowledge and experience of the lessons but, more importantly, the programs used to deliver them, my younger kids’ homeschooling experience would have looked very different this past year. With a lot more meltdowns… and a lot more profanities.

I think these older kids deserve a serious shoutout for stepping up to the plate, being a role model to their siblings by showing them compassion, patience, and support and encouraging them to grow and learn. But also for being little heroes to parents everywhere who are struggling to find time and energy to work, clean, cook, and complete the million other things they were suddenly forced to do entirely at home, while also trying to make sure their little pupils are still getting a semi-decent education. Even if it’s happening in a very different place and a totally different way that anyone could have ever imagined it would.

My oldest son is the true unsung hero of our family’s shit-show pandemic experience, and as soon as this is over and things are back to some quasi-normal I’m getting him a pony (or, more likely, a new gaming system because let’s face it, kids these days don’t want pets, they want new technology-charged gadgets) because damn if he doesn’t deserve that … and so much more.

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Why Your Kid Keeps Sneaking Onto YouTube

This week a mom asked Twitter for help getting her 10-year-old son to stop sneaking onto YouTube during virtual learning.  An early response suggested she teach her son self-regulation—that self-control skill most of us still struggle with, the one that fails me every time I find myself on YouTube or Netflix instead of doing work.

Mama, you are not alone. Parents everywhere are dealing with severe cases of kids’ twitchy fingers constantly clicking on videos, answering a chat, or checking sports scores (our particular battle). I get it. One year ago, schools shut down and suddenly kids got to be on “tech time” devices for many more hours each day.

So, was the Twitter advice right? Can this mom teach her kid to self-regulate and set him free to conquer the temptation to minimize Zoom and watch videos of an elephant sneezing or a dance prodigy breaking it down?

I wish it was that easy. The science does say self-regulation can be taught. Like a muscle, it can get stronger with practice. But the science also says that the part of the brain where it lives—right up front with a bunch of other important cognitive skills like being able to focus, plan, follow directions, and stay organized, doesn’t fully form until our mid-twenties.

That means our kids could be trying their best to say no to YouTube, or in our case, ESPN.com. They could be sincere when they tell you they don’t know why they kept sending their friends chat messages of 50 poop and alien emojis. It also means that when they fail and give into temptation, they’re showing us that their brains aren’t ready to do that hard work just yet. They need help.

This is the cognitive fitness version of teaching kids to bowl with bumpers or ride a bicycle with training wheels or a glide bike. Our kids need life hacks to rely on as they learn and practice these skills. It takes time. And patience. It is hardest for kids who already struggle with attention, the tendency to get over-stimulated, addictive tendencies, and hyperactivity.

The science here is fascinating. It turns out that while that front part of the brain is “under construction” other parts of the brain chip in to help. When our kids need self-regulation, the B-Team tries to come to the rescue. This sometimes works but not always. Biology hasn’t caught up with our rapidly changing world. The brain wasn’t ready for the onslaught of self-regulation demands that come with pandemic living and online learning. These really are unprecedented times. You need to keep your wits about you, practice patience, and cut your kids (and yourselves) some slack.

Luckily, for those of us who feel like we are losing the battle between our kids getting work done and giving into distractions, there are strategies that work. It could be time to start a cognitive fitness routine at home. Here are three things we’ve been doing at our house:

Try mindfulness.

You don’t have to be a yogi to practice mindfulness exercises with your kids. You can actually teach your kids to recognize the physical sensations that go with different desires or actions. I can feel temptation and so can they. If they can learn to recognize that feeling when it happens, they can also learn to redirect. I really like the book, Mindfulness for Children. The author, Uz Azfal, is a longtime elementary educator. Check out her exercise called “iCheck” to do with your kids a minute or two before they get on the computer.

Use brain hacks.

Self-regulation is one part of cognitive skillset called “executive functioning.” Luckily, there’s a lot of research—especially from experts in attention and hyperactivity disorders—on how to work on them. I love Brain Hacks: Work Smarter, Stay Focused, and Achieve Your Goals by clinical psychologist Lara Honos-Webb. She breaks down the science and struggle in a helpful way, and offers easy exercises, like how to “rate your craving.”

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Your kids are not the only ones contending with an onslaught of demands, deadlines, and distractions. While the front part of our brains might be fully developed, it can still short-circuit from being overloaded. It’s time to up your self-care. Your kids need healthy parents even more than they need all of these assists.

We are not out of the woods yet. Kids will keep learning from home for a bit longer. Even when everyone’s back to school this experience will have rewired their brains. If your kids got used to lots of tech, they’re going to crave lots of tech. If they were struggling with distractions-while-Zooming, they’re going to need a bit of a detox and extra parental support in the transition offline. Just remember, when you find your kids on YouTube instead of Khan Academy, or checking scores instead of submitting an assignment, it’s likely not defiance. It’s wiring.

(By the way: the struggle is real. While writing this I caught both kids downstairs on their computers. Without permission. On email and checking sports scores. Peace be with you.)

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How My ‘Inner Child’ Is Helping Me Connect With My Teenage Son

It’s difficult being a parent. For me, with a newly minted teenage son, it’s doubly challenging because while I am generally a serious person, my son is not. He is playful, loves to sing, prefers YouTube to Hulu, and the stage to sitting behind a laptop writing — my preferred pastime. We both like to read, except very different genres. At the end of the day, my son is just a normal kid in many ways. He enjoys hanging out with friends, telling Alexa to fart, teasing his sisters, and losing brain cells watching YouTube influencers.

I am grateful he has another parent, my wife, who understands him better. She plays around with him more than I do. She laughs at his jokes — the ones I just don’t understand. They enjoy watching the same television shows (except for YouTube) like Star Wars and the Mandalorian. I am almost forty years old and far from being in touch with my inner child.

This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life, but especially since his birth fourteen years ago. Getting down on the floor and playing with him using my imagination didn’t come easy for me when he was little, and I’m fully convinced there is a part of my inner child which needs healing. My childhood was spent saddled with overwhelming adult responsibilities, and not much opportunity to be imaginative. When it came to playing with my toys it was all about my Cabbage Patch dolls and my Barbies, alone.

While my son’s teenage years are vastly different from my own, there is a carefree approach that he has to life, one that I am still searching for myself. 

Writer and motivational speaker Diana Raab has a few suggestions. In an article for Psychology Today, she says there are 10 ways to help  get in touch with your inner child:

– Keep an open mind.

– Spend time with children.

– Look at old photos to bring back memories of your childhood. 

– Spend time doing what you truly enjoy.

– Be playful.

– Engage in laughter.

– Write a letter to your inner child.

– Engage in creative play.

– Journal about special moments from your childhood.

– Engage in meditation and creative visualization.

Raab notes, “Being in touch with your inner child is a safe way to take a break from everything that’s going on in the world. The inner child thinks positively and believes in the possibilities in everything. If you put yourself in ‘child mode,’ you may find that you become more open to the magnificent opportunities that exist all around you.” 

In The Genius of Play, Child Development and Play Expert Kathleen Alfano suggests carving out time in your schedule specifically for play — even if it’s just to daydream and decompress. Smiling and laughing throughout the day can go a long way, in case you needed an excuse to look at funny memes and videos. And, she says, “Cultivate a happy, joyful, positive attitude, full of gratitude for even the smallest, everyday things.” 

In terms of being more playful with our kids, Alfano’s suggestion is: “Spend time with the children in your life, observing them as they play, listening to their conversation, and following their train of thought.” In my son’s case, that’s going to mean listening to his jokes and having a front-row seat to the musical theater that goes on while he’s doing his chore of washing dishes.

I focus on his ability to have and hold onto responsibilities, things that will make him (I hope) into a hardworking young man. He cannot live at home forever, so he needs the tools to make it — the real-life parts that will make him successful once he’s on his own. Yet I know there is a balance, a way in which I can teach him both. I can teach him how to cook a meal from start to finish and I can sit with him and watch his Saturday morning musical show without putting in earplugs. I can take a few weeks and read Harry Potter with him, or Concrete Rose, and have a discussion.

At the end of the day, I need to take a step back and out of the kitchen, or lift my head from my writing to hear his song from start to finish, including the accompaniment of his keyboard. When he breaks out into this John Legend cover every Sunday afternoon, I stand outside of his door listening closely. Maybe next time, I’ll open his door and act as his backup singer.

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Why Getting My 8th Grade Child A Cell Phone Was So Difficult And Emotional

I dreaded this day.

I have counseled hundreds of parents about this moment, listened to thousands of them over the years confessing it was the biggest mistake of their parental lives. Now it was time for my husband and I to face the decision.

My daughter, who is in 8th grade, has never asked for a phone, and has even mocked her friends for being attached to their phones too much. Nevertheless, during a recent casual lunch she discussed her maturity, her difficulty in friendships with peers for being phone-free, and how isolated she seems from the surrounding world. A handful of times her teachers asked students to use their phones to snap images in textbooks or on the board. I am embarrassed to admit that I knew I was putting her at a disadvantage, but I did not care. There is so much negativity that I have witnessed over the years it didn’t seem the benefit was worth the risk. However, thanks to some insight from an amazing friend, I recognized that I was allowing my profession to bias me against every instance of phone use. Begrudgingly, I fessed up that it was time to allow my precious, innocent, smart, bold, and beautiful young daughter to have a phone.

Is it the phone, the technology, or the internet that is evil? No. I can’t go there. I instinctively want to jump into the …. “but evil exists in it and here is how…” mode, but this is more about the pain of saying goodbye to my little girl in such a difficult and profound way for me, her mom. This is not about me, the psychologist, working within the confines of psychology to analyze how technology influences (dominates is actually a better word) our every moment. This is simply about a mom recognizing that it is an end of an era for her daughter.

Not all kids live with a mom who has made it her global mission to keep kids safe online by educating them through online lessons, creating companies and foundations to support the mission, and even writing a book on the subject.  So when my husband and I sat her down to discuss our expectations from her, she was not surprised when we insisted on her writing a thoughtful contract that she felt we would agree to.  (In fact, she finished writing it in under an hour). We were quite clear about there being no social media AT ALL (which is where I truly believe 99% of all teen problems begin). There was a very early lesson (lecture?) about respecting the device as a tool for her to use rather than to be used by. She was made to understand that this was not a gift, it was not wrapped around a special occasion. It was a tool that we purchased to support her in her life.

The emotional journey I traveled when handing over the phone and watching the results was devastatingly sad and, yet, amazing at the same time. Of course, before I handed over the phone, I did what any tech safe advocate/mom would do — I set up parameters that concealed her location, turned off notifications, had her go through my digital cell phone licensing program, negotiated a contract (yes, negotiated, buy in is critical), and ensured we had some apps that I know are critical in containing the wandering curious mind of a teen. Within 30 minutes of her phone’s activation, she had been added to her team soccer chat and had FaceTimed with a couple of teammates who were clearly as bored as she was over the Thanksgiving break. What an amazing moment to see my very quiet, introverted daughter have such joy and connection!

We did also have a moment of stress on that first day when we were cooking together. I was teaching her my family’s potato soup recipe using leftover mashed potatoes when she directed me to wait “just a second” so she could finish a 6-minute-plus text . . . And, yes, of course I timed it. . .  I ignored her “directive” and continued cooking, which resulted in her eventually asking, “Why didn’t you wait for me?” She needed to learn the valuable lesson that real people in real time always win over text people every time. Still, it was a particularly difficult early lesson, and one that hurt my heart just a bit, seeing how quickly her perspective can be lost.

I must learn my own lessons as well. For example, I need to accept that this very smart, sweet, naïve young lady who always wanted to spend time with mom, now is more interested in being with her teen peers.  We all did it, but for some reason the technology behind this moment pained me. Perhaps having lost my mom far too early in life is part of it; nevertheless, it was poignantly evident there was a loss happening. The sadness of accepting that she is no longer a little girl, something which should have been evident once her height reached mine.

As I write this, I have tears streaming down my face. Ridiculous you might think? I certainly agree it is a bit of an overreaction. This should be a moment of fun, excitement, and one that we treasure.  Yet, the sadness is authentic. I worry about what is to come but take some comfort in that she is probably more prepared for it than any other 13-year-old on this planet. She has been my creative partner, collaborator, and critic for most of the educational content I have developed for families and kids each year. She has helped me review my online resource library for our K-12 program, and she has even edited scripts for the diversion program for kids who have stepped into murky waters online. I know she makes good decisions. That is a given. This is solely about a mom’s love for her daughter, one that most every other mother knows. A love which is deep, complex, complicated, and tumultuous—all at the same time.

I pray the world is good to her. I pray that she will not encounter anything too horrifying, scary, or corrupt as she walks this new journey. Her graduation into the digital world has made me realize it is more important than ever that I find new ways to support and protect our children as they navigate these digital spaces. My commitment and passion have found new depths, and I will be there for her and for all children/families as they take on this brave new world.

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Why We Need To Stop Worrying About ‘Kids These Days’

Kids these days are disrespectful.

Kids these days are entitled.

Kids these days listen to crude music. They dress too sexy. They dress like slobs. They’re selfish and oblivious. They don’t care about anything or anyone but themselves.

Kids these days. I worry for the future.

“Kids these days” is a common refrain, and it’s almost always used as a pejorative. I hear it most often from folks over 40, a demographic I joined two Septembers ago — we look at tweens, teens, and college-age kids and criticize what we perceive as foreshadowing of certain doom. Some people seem to believe that teenagers are literally going to be the collapse of society.

Interestingly, the people who complain most about today’s youth being irredeemable delinquents seem to forget the criticism of their own generation when it was still in its youth. Disrespectful. Entitled. Vulgar music. Inappropriate dress. Selfish.

Every older generation employs the same tired, critiques of every younger generation. I think it’s time we break the cycle and stop harping on the young ones. It’s redundant and arrogant — it assumes we didn’t occasionally act like idiots when we were young. It assumes no previous generations ever did. And it assumes Gen Z’s frontal lobes will never fully develop.

Moreover, if there were any generation that would deserve criticism the least, it’s this particular up-and-coming generation. Gen Z, also known as Zoomers, are doing better than previous generations by a number of objective metrics. I’ll own my personal bias — I have a 14-year-old son who astounds me every day with his wisdom, kindness, and hilarity — but the aggregate data on this generation also backs me up.

Zoomers think giving a shit about your fellow humans is the obvious way to be.

The most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the U.S. to date, Zoomers live up to the American idea of a “melting pot.” Gen Z will be the least white generation the U.S. has ever seen, and not only that, they view their contribution to the country’s growing diversity as a positive.
One-in-four members of Gen Z are Hispanic

Inclusivity is not only important to Zoomers, but they also, as a rule, take it for granted. Ask a Zoomer the kinds of questions folks “grappled” with in the ‘80s and ‘90s, like “Would you remain friends with someone if you found out they were gay?” or “Would you date someone outside your race?” and they will most likely look at you like your forehead just suddenly sprouted a stalk of broccoli.

In a 2018 Pew research survey, when asked whether same-sex marriage was a good thing for society, 48% of Zoomers said it was good thing and 36% said it makes no difference. Only 15% said same-sex marriage was bad for society, compared to Boomers, of whom 32% said same-sex marriage was bad for society. Zoomers are also more likely to personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.

Gen Z is also more likely than previous generations to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, especially among Republicans in that age group. Of Millennial Republicans, 30% say Black people are treated less fairly than white people. Of Gen Z Republicans, 43% say the same.

Zoomers are making mature choices even as they take their time growing up.

Compared to any other previous generation, Zoomers are more likely to graduate high school and more likely to attend college. In 2018, 57% of 18- to 21-year-olds were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college. In 1987, when Gen Xers were that age, only 43% were enrolled in college.

They’re pragmatic elsewhere, too. In 2017, researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College reported that today’s teens are less likely to engage in adult behaviors like drinking alcohol, smoking, dating, and having sex. Analysists assumed this trend has to do with today’s teens being busier with homework, extracurricular activities, and increased time online.

Another apparent side effect of this slowed-down approach to growing up is that teen pregnancies are at an all-time low, as are abortions. The CDC conducted a study in 2013 that revealed a significant drop in teen pregnancies among low-income teens as well. Among the 600,000 teens who used the Title X National Family Planning Program for contraception, the use of long-acting reversible contraception like IUDs and implants nearly doubled from 2005 to 2013.

Gen Z are digital natives and expert bullshit detectors.

Zoomers are digital natives, meaning they either weren’t born yet or don’t remember a world without the internet, smartphones, and social media. They have grown up with an infinite amount of information at their fingertips, and with that they have had to acquire the skepticism necessary to spot when someone’s trying to manipulate, exploit, or deceive them. We’ve come a long way from my sweet grandmother finding a letter from Publisher’s Clearinghouse in her mailbox and being convinced she’d won a million dollars from a fake contest she never even entered. These kids are absolutely not here for anyone’s bullshit.

Folks in older generations wring their hands over today’s kids’ use of digital media, panicking that kids are disengaged and asocial, but they rarely take the time to examine what kids are actually looking at. Get a teen to talk about what they’re doing on that device in their hands, and you’ll discover a rich social world and an eager, active consumption and analysis of current events, arts, music, history, and pop culture. These kids are as likely to deliver a searing critique of our contemporary political and social landscape as they are to watch headache-inducing (for us) YouTube videos filled with words they invented themselves and humor that is hopelessly beyond our comprehension.

Gen Z is all about social justice.

In a 2020 survey conducted by the National Society of High School Scholars, it was found that Zoomers are more concerned about human rights than salaries. These kids are keenly aware of social issues while also being sensible and tenacious with their education and career goals. And no wonder. This is the generation that saw their parents suffer through the Great Recession of 2007-2009. They’ve experienced getting their schools shot up while the adults in charge did nothing to help them but encourage them to practice active shooter drills. It was Gen Z kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that started the #NeverAgain movement. Gen Z have marched at #BlackLivesMatter protests and witnessed the shameful inadequate response of our government to a global pandemic. Because of how digitally connected these kids are, they know more about current events than most of us ever did at their age.

Zoomers are creative, hilarious, cheerful nihilists.

Zoomer K-pop fans hijack bullshit hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter and #ImpeachBidenNow. They are philosophers who can easily hold seemingly opposing ideas like “nothing matters” and “everything is amazing.” They recognize irony, hypocrisy, and injustice and will call these things out by relentlessly mocking them. They could give a shit about fashion trends but in terms of what others think about them, but they will rock an outfit for their own personal enjoyment.

Basically, Gen Z is being careful about where they put their fucks. They’re discerning, confident, and streetwise without being closed-minded, arrogant, and careless. They will debate you under the table while simultaneously having a conversation with their besties in a chat thread on an app you probably don’t know about.

So, if any generation deserves the “kids these days” pejorative less, it’s Gen Z. Sure, there are shitheads in every generation. But as a whole, this one is pretty badass, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re giving us every reason to have hope for the future.

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Why You Should Schedule Some One-On-One Time With Your Kids

I don’t know exactly when we began doing it, but for the past several years, my wife and I have been scheduling one-on-one time with our three children. Once a month my wife spends a couple of hours each weekend, one on one, with one of our children. I do the same the next month, and we just alternate months. We have three kids, so that’s three weekends (and on the fourth weekend, Mel and I go on a date).

Ultimately, the child picks what we do. Before COVID-19, we might go ice skating, or swimming at the pool, or to see a movie. It’s something our children have always really looked forward to, but ever since things got locked down because of COVID-19, it seems like this one-on-one time has taken on a new level of importance.

Sure, there isn’t as much to do outside of the house at the moment. Most of the time, we just end up finding a room that’s unoccupied and streaming a movie together. Two weeks ago, I took my 13-year-old on a drive around town so he could play Pokémon Go. But it’s not what we’ve been doing on these outings that matters anyway; it’s the fact that it’s been giving my children something to look forward to, and it’s giving them time to chat with someone. With all the stress of learning from home, and not being around friends, and living through a pandemic, this is pretty important — particularly with my oldest two, who are 11 and 13.

Last weekend I was scheduled to spend time with my 11-year-old daughter, Norah, and she decided to watch the high school musical “Zombies” on Disney Plus. Before the movie, we were driving to pick up a food order from Target, and listening to the “Zombies” movie soundtrack. She knew every song, which kind of surprised me considering she claimed to have never seen the movie. I asked her about that, and she gave me this very simple response, “I’ve been saving it.”

“For what?” I asked.

“To watch it with you,” she said.

I don’t know how long she’d been wanting to watch that movie, and I don’t know how long she’d been listening to the songs. But what I do know is that when she said she’d been saving it, she gave me this bashful smile, and it seemed clear that she wanted nothing else but to watch this movie with her father. The real kicker was, this was the most anticipation and excitement I’d seen in her eyes for months. Like all kids, this has been a difficult time for her, so it was a refreshing change to see her excitement.

Going back to the aforementioned outing with my 13-year-old to hunt for Pokémon: We started out by hitting up KFC. Once again, this was his suggestion. Then we drove around our small little Oregon town, his face glued to his phone, giving me directions, as we searched out for the coveted “shiny” Pokémon. We found Pokémon gyms, and we participated in Pokémon raids, and I’ll just say, I had no idea what we were doing exactly. But I wasn’t really in it for the Pokémon. I was in it for the conversation. As we drove, we talked. We talked about how much he missed his friends, and we talked about how hard it was to learn from home, and how he was tired of Zoom, and wished we had been able to go swimming at the community pool this summer. We talked about soccer practice, and that he hopes he will get to play again next summer. We talked about his best friend, and how he’s worried about him because he’s been depressed recently.

It was just my son and I, chatting as we drove. He had a good vent. And when you’re dealing with a teenager, getting them to open up like that is no easy task, and I don’t know if it would have happened with anyone else in the car. By the end of our time hunting for Pokémon, I could tell that he’d been able to get a lot off his chest, and it just felt good to let him tell me about his problems.

As a family, we are all we have right now. We work and learn from home, and my kids need someone to talk to. Setting aside this time with them one-on-one has really given them the opportunity to open up. It’s given them something to look forward to during a dark time, and it really isn’t all that hard of an investment. Just an hour or two on the weekends can make an unbelievable difference.

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My Daughter Doesn’t Brush Her Hair, And It Drives Me Bonkers

It’s a scene that’s all too familiar in my house—my two kids huddled over their iPads in the few minutes before they start school, desperate to get a few seconds of screen time in before they’re forced to do something besides mindlessly watch YouTube. Neither one has made their bed. Neither has packed their school bag. And my daughter’s hair is in a ball of knots at the back of her head. I’m annoyed.

I’m annoyed that their obsession with their iPads means they aren’t ready on time, but even more, I’m annoyed at my daughter’s complete and total apathy when it comes to her hair. She got dressed and brushed her teeth, so why didn’t she brush her hair?

Growing up, I used to sneak into my mom’s room after school to use her makeup without her knowing. She owned only a powder compact, blush, and blue shadow, but I’d carefully spread, smear, and brush the makeup onto my little kid face and primp and preen in front of the mirror. It brought me endless joy. As soon as I got old enough, I bought my own makeup, along with a blow dryer, hair sprayer, and mousse—and never left the house without being “done.” For too long I cared about what I looked like to other people.

Fast forward 30 years and I have a daughter who couldn’t care less about being “done.” She does not care one iota about what people think of how she looks. She has no interest in my makeup or a curling wand. I not only love this about her, I admire it and often wish I was better at channeling it. As a result, I support her choice of clothes, her choice of footwear, her choice of jewelry and accessories. She can wear what makes her happy and look the way that brings her joy. I believe in her bodily autonomy. I believe she should be allowed to make choices about her body without my coercion.

And yet—she’s sitting on the couch with a rat’s nest the size of a bowling ball in her hair, and I cannot keep quiet.

Because—why? Why has she resisted brushing her hair for so many days in a row now that the knots have tangled together and need their own zip code? I don’t understand. When her hair gets to this point, where I know brushing out the knots will be somewhere between time-consuming and painful, I have to say something to her, and I have to step in, despite all that space I want to give for her bodily autonomy.

I’ve tried everything to encourage her to brush her hair at least every morning to prevent this situation. I’ve nagged. I’ve given her gentle morning reminders. I’ve bought her countless special brushes—wet brushes and tangle brushes and have no doubt single-handedly kept the children’s hairbrush industry in business. And still—her apathy to brushing her hair remains, and the rat’s nest grows, and my desire to give her full bodily autonomy is thrown out the window when I see those knots and do not give her a choice about letting me brush them out.

The truth is those knots drive me absolutely bonkers, but my response fills me with guilt. I worry that if I push too much, I’m going to give her a complex, or worse, slowly erode that amazing ability she has to be wholly herself, unbothered by what anyone else thinks of her. She’s knocking on the door of her early teen years, where self-consciousness flourishes, and do I really want to start making my daughter anxious about how she looks right now? Do I want to put my voice in her head like that, for the next few years…or, possibly, even for the rest of her life? I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t want to turn her into me as a teenager. I want her to rock whatever look she wants to rock, whatever makes her happy.

And yet, I also want her to care about taking care of herself enough to do the basic things—like wearing clean clothes and brushing her teeth. Brushing her hair should be included in that basic self-care, shouldn’t it? So maybe it’s okay if I nag and coax? Maybe I’m not snatching her enviable ability to move through the world without caring what anyone else thinks.

It feels like walking a razor thin line, and I’m not sure I’ve found the right balance yet.

I suspect what bothers me is less that she’s making a choice about her hair and her body, and more the very apathy involved. She’s not choosing, for example, to wear a messy ponytail everyday, and I’m annoyed because I want her to have a sleek bun. She’s not choosing a center part, against my wishes that she wear a side part. The problem is, it seems, that she’s not choosing at all. She’s cutting corners to get a few more minutes with her iPad, and it drives me bonkers. I want her to care enough to choose—because I am sure if she chose, she wouldn’t choose wild knots that require a fair amount of pulling to untangle.

The truth is that I may never find the right balance—I will probably always be the voice in her head reminding her to brush her hair, the voice she rolls her eyes at. But hopefully I will also be the voice in her head reminding her that the part of her that is wholly comfortable in her own skin, regardless of all the rest, is amazing and special and should always be nurtured.

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How The Pandemic Is Allowing My Big Kid To Be Little For A While Longer

When daylight peeks through the curtains, my nine-year-old likes to bolt out of bed. His footsteps, which sound like sonic booms in the stillness of our raised foundation home, are purposeful and exuberantly directed towards his daily destination. It’s not my room that he is so excited to get to, at least not anymore. That went away with fleece pajamas with padded feet. For months now, my big little kid has run down the hallway to greet someone closer to his heart — his little sister.

Theirs is a relationship that has always been bonded. She is almost four years younger, far apart enough in age to not be a threat to his identity, but close enough to effortlessly fall into his stride. They spend hours in the backyard battling monsters or creating extravagant dream houses with blocks and Hatchimals.

In the mornings, he rushes into her room to splay on the floor with a “Bad Guys” book to read while she draws pictures of ballerinas. Sometimes their quiet co-existence is pierced with spontaneous banter or interrupted with raised voices and tears, but mostly it’s a celebration of the start of another day — together.

The pandemic has made them closer, and it has delayed the inevitable — the silent mornings when his door will decidedly remain shut in favor of solitude. The day will soon arrive when he will find it difficult to conjure a worthy adversary to battle with his sister by his side.

My nine-year-old is standing on the brink of early adolescence — an uncharted world in our home ­— which will require him to shed well-loved habits, identities and even little playmates.

The glimpses of his diminishing littleness make me savor the mornings when they choose to be together. I lay in bed and listen to their giggles, their expository conversation and their content silence and just wish for a pause button. Can I just freeze time right here?

And then time froze.

The pandemic has, for the most part, kept us at home. We work, play, eat, and learn in our little blue house. Our isolation has kept us healthy, but it has also made days melt together like a surreal Salvador Dali painting. In the absence of in-person school, sporting events and playdates, my little son’s metamorphosis into a big kid has slowed down, too.

Before the pandemic, I saw glimpses of his little kid identity slowly shedding. While he used to be lockstep with me during our daily walks to and from school, he started walking five steps ahead. One day, prompted by his friends that Pokémon cards were no longer cool, he gifted his little sister with his entire cherished collection. Where he used to tear through play structures with glee, he preferred to walk and talk with his friends away from the clamor of little bodies on slides.

To most people, my son is the same fun-loving, football-obsessed kid as years past, but a mom can see all the micro shifts in development.

I was also nine years old once. On the first day of fourth grade, I packed all of my Sanrio school supplies — which were all the rage just a few short summer months ago — only to find that they have fallen out of favor among my friends. In place of the talk about cute frog shaped erasers and pencil cases were excited hushed whispers about boys. The most talked about television shows went from after school cartoons to “Beverly Hills 90210.” I watched each episode like an anthropological study into who I should be.

That summer before fourth grade, I built a stronghold in the corner of our backyard using scraps from my dad’s woodpile. In reality, it was a lopsided teepee with questionable structural soundness. I spent hours there. It was my Terabithia. I tied a rope to a tree to swing across the river of my imagination.

When I was nine years old, I felt like the world was spinning at a dizzying pace. This is the peril of straddling both the little and big kid worlds at the same time — the ground below you can shift in different directions. I wanted to push the pause button, so I could spend one more weekend in my stronghold.

I imagined my son felt the same way when he suddenly became old enough for relatives to ask him questions about girls in his class or when a classmate questioned why he was still wearing shoes with velcro straps.

Sometimes, the isolation of the pandemic makes our little house feel like a gilded cage. But on most days, I am thankful that the pandemic has given my little big kid some breathing room. It has taken away the pressure to keep up with his friends. With his little sister as the guide, I see the little boy in him re-emerge.

Every spare moment from learning on Zoom school, he plays an imaginary game of football that requires him to throw and catch the ball himself. He designs his own plays and runs the routes religiously. Often, he lingers by the table where his five-year-old sister is usually playing with a Frozen dollhouse. She asks him to join, but propelled by his big kid inner voice, he runs away with the football.

Eventually, I see them together, sitting side-by-side in front of Elsa’s palace, laughing uproariously because his Olaf character keeps farting snowballs.

She gives him space to soften. She gives him permission to be a little kid again.

From the kitchen window, I drink up scenes like these with my eyes.

The virus is horrible. The magnitude of loss and grief is unbearable. When my mind wanders to the dark interstices of our reality, I think about these moments to help lift me out. I think about a brother and a little sister who get a little more time to swing on a rope across the river of their imagination.

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Simple Ways To Connect With Your Tween During The Pandemic

The tween years, which are typically defined as children ages nine to twelve, can be challenging. First, there’s puberty. The mood swings alone are enough to drive any of us batty. Second, this is a socially awkward time. Kids are trying to find out where (and with whom) they fit in. And then there’s the kicker. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown us all for a major loop, especially our tweens.

Yes, kids can be resilient. However, we can’t dismiss the fact that our tweens are learning and living during an extremely difficult season. They’ve lost and suffered a lot, and there’s no end in sight. As a mom of four, two of whom are tweens, I’ve found that now, more than ever, we need to connect with our tweens to help them navigate the pandemic.

I know that figuring out tweens isn’t easy. There’s a lot of growth and regression that takes place during these three years, and then, once they’re over, there’s a teenager. Instead of dreading the teen-prep, we can choose to embrace it. After all, tweens actually crave to be heard and parented. It’s an interesting time in childhood. We can spend time with our kids, letting them know we support, encourage, and love them, even though it feels like the whole world is on fire. Here’s how.

Be playful with your tween.

Tweens are interesting in that they want to be all-teen one minute (electronics, please) and little-kid the next. My tweens want to play on a Switch, and then a few minutes later are playing dress-up, dolls, and toy kitchen with their younger siblings. Parents can take advantage of this and be playful with their tweens. Before you think it has to be complicated, hear me out. Your tween may be perfectly content with a simple, playful engagement like tossing a ball, playing a favorite childhood game (Candy Land, anyone?), or doing a chore together that used to be solely the tween’s responsibility.

Relax with your tween.

Teaching our tweens to relax and be in the moment is incredibly important, especially in an otherwise fast-paced, jam-packed life. Being mindful of one’s own emotional, physical, and mental needs is a powerful tool they can use not only during the pandemic, but their entire life. Explore options with your tween such as yoga, coloring, or reading. You can also engage in a calming hobby together, like paint-by-numbers, knitting, or learning how to meditate. Don’t forget to light a candle and put on some soothing music.

Play spa with your tween.

Since going to get your nails done isn’t the best plan right now, why not play spa with your tween? Let them lead the way. Choose some new nail polish, make or buy a facial mask, and find some soothing Epsom salts. Set aside a night a week that you chill together. Perhaps you soak your feet side-by-side in a bathtub with some those calming Epsom salts while you simply chat or ask each other questions. One activity all my kids love is to play the Favorites Game. You probably already guessed that the Favorites Game is simply asking the other person what their favorites are, such as favorite foods, songs, color, and more. When you play spa, make sure it’s very clear to your other family members that they are not invited. Make it special for you and your tween, giving them your undivided attention.

Get to know your tween better, and let them get to know you.

I bought each of my tweens a parent-and-me journal. We write back and forth to each other, and they absolutely love this, especially when I write something funny from my childhood. Another option is play games like Would You Rather? or the aforementioned Favorites Game. Charades can also be a wonderful way to connect and enjoy each other’s personalities.

Engage in an activity they enjoy, letting your tween take the lead.

My kids love being leaders. Give your tweens the opportunity to teach you something. Maybe it’s how to perform a dance or do a certain move in their favorite sport. My tweens are obsessed with building with Lego, so there’s times I hang out in their rooms and ask them what I should build. Other times they choose a favorite game—which is usually UNO—and we play together.

Take the lead with your tween, teaching them something fun.

My tweens enjoy being in the kitchen and learning to make something, especially if it’s a dessert. I’ve taught my tweens how to make cornbread, cake, eggs, and a few other things. Yes, there were some burnt pans along the way, but there was also a lot of laughter. If there’s something your tween is interested in and you know how to do, teach them. If your kiddo is more mechanically inclined, teach them how to use tools. Perhaps they want to learn a hobby you enjoy. Whatever it is, just enjoy the process together.

Encourage your tween to attend therapy, if needed.

There is a huge demand right now for mental health help, because many—kids and adults—are suffering. The pandemic has brought underlying struggles with anxiety and depression to the forefront. Lead by example. If you aren’t willing to go to therapy, why would your tween? A therapist gives your tween a sounding board and a safe person to confide in. Not only that, but your tween can learn how to better communicate with you, have healthy boundaries, navigate relationship struggles, and keep going step-by-step through the pandemic.

Lead by example when it comes to screen time.

This is a huge struggle of mine, since I do most of my work from my phone. However, I could absolutely cut down on the mindless scrolling and “just one more thing” research binge. When we limit our own screen time and follow the rules (such as, no tech at the table), we encourage our tweens to the do the same. When we’re on our screens less, have the chance to connect with those—including our tweens—who are right in front of us. Teach your kids that you are available to comfort, brainstorm, or whatever else they might need.

With some intentionality, we can absolutely engage in meaningful moments with our tweens during this incredibly difficult season. Despite their sometimes I’m-fine-and-can-do-everything-myself attitude, a tween still needs their parents, perhaps more now than ever before. Take advantage of more time at home together and connect with your tween. We all want to feel less alone and more supported right now.

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This Is Why The Pre-Teen Years Are So Painful

I sent my sister a text on Christmas morning to see how her day was going. Her kids are a bit younger than mine, and I was thinking they probably woke her up really early to open their gifts. 

I was wrong, though. My sweet sister was practically in tears saying, “It’s just not the same. They don’t care anymore. They didn’t want to leave cookies or a note to Santa and we had to wake them up this morning.”

It immediately shook me back to about four years ago when this started happening with my kids.

At first, I’d felt a bit of relief — no more Santa lies, no more hiding the elf. No more slipping into their room in the night to put money under their pillow and take a lost tooth. But with that, a lot of magic flies out the window and you realize a certain special stage of your relationship with your kids is gone.

As I was sitting on my sofa texting my sister, watching movies while my teenagers were up in their rooms doing what teenagers do, it hit me: This was the first year that I didn’t have any of that angst my sister was going through. It was the first time since my kids started growing out of some of our old traditions years ago that I didn’t feel like I had a bleeding artery shooting out from my heart. 

My sister asked me if I struggled as much as she’d been struggling this year. I assured her I had, and told her to hang on tight because it might be tough on her for the next few years as they pull away more, think everything is dumb, and no longer get excited about things that would have once thrilled them.

When they are younger, there is a light inside of them. It’s what makes us excited to hide the Easter eggs, wrap the gifts, decorate the house like a snow globe, or throw them a themed birthday party. It allows us to tap into our own childhood and relive some of the most meaningful memories we had as kids, or give them memories we wish we had.

Then, when they are over it (and let’s face it, over us), it absolutely sucks. There’s no other way to put it. It bites the big one and we feel like we are left with groans instead of squeals, indifference instead of excitement, and grumpy kids who are too busy to partake in family traditions with us.

The changes that our tweens and teens are going through are huge and all-encompassing. It’s a big loss for parents of the world, and it feels like our kids don’t really give a shit. They want to grow up and do their own thing. They want to talk to their friends and move away from the family unit a little at a time and yes, it’s truly heartbreaking for the parents.

It’s the end of a chapter, and a reminder things will never be the same.

Pre-teens and teenagers have a way of leaving a void in their parents’ hearts and it’s a hard heartbreak to recover from.

Watching all of my kids grow up (and grow out of me) has been the loneliest feeling I’ve ever had in my life. No one told me this would happen. But if they did, it still wouldn’t have prepared me for all it has taken to try and get through it.

It’s a feeling of sadness for me, but I’m also sad for them, because I know a lot of their innocence and that childhood magic has faded away. I can’t create it or give it back to them no matter how hard I try. My sister is just beginning to feel these feelings, and I feel for her, because it’s a long, hard road to acceptance.

However, this year on Christmas morning my oldest son came into my room to wake me up at 6:30. He said it was because he was hungry and wanted to know when I was going to put the french toast casserole in the oven. But I think he was up because maybe he’s been missing someone of his childhood magic too.

It wasn’t the same as when he was younger and would burst in the room begging to go downstairs to see if Santa came, but I’ll take it. At this point, I’ll take whatever I can get to remind me that no matter how much they detach, they’re still my babies.

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