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Exceptional Teenagers

Next Step Therapy - Thursday, March 10, 2016

My oldest, the senior, got invited to a Steeler playoff party at a friend’s house.  When they won, he asked me if we could have the next one at my house.  I immediately said yes.  You might wonder if I’m a fool, or can’t tell my kid no, or if I’m a glutton for punishment.  None of the above (most of the time.) It’s his senior year, and I only have the opportunity to do these things for just a little bit more.  His dad and I share custody, so I haven’t had him 24/7 for many years, and apparently he thinks I’m a cool enough mom to do this…..so I said yes.  However, I would not have said yes if I thought that this group of kids was going to trash my house, smoke or sneak alcohol in my basement, or if I thought that I couldn’t control them.  I truly had no concerns, other than how much food we’d need.

I ended up with nine teenagers in my home, some for as long as seven hours.  They played corn hole in the basement, and Madden Football on Xbox before the game, during half-time, and after the game.  They took turns at everything – not one argument.  Not one.  They ate my food (less than half of what I expected), and cleaned up after themselves.  Each and every one of them spoke to me during the game when I asked dumb football questions (What’s a touchback?)  Despite the Steelers losing, and some truly bungled plays, not one swear word was uttered (I had to watch MY mouth!), and there was no slamming of objects.  At some point, one of the seventeen year olds who had driven himself said, “Ms. Cowles, my car doesn’t do very well in the snow, and it’s put a lot down.  Do you think it would be okay to leave my car here overnight, and have my parents pick me up?” And I replied, “That is a very mature, responsible decision to make, and yes, your car will be fine here.”  I then texted his mother, offered to have him stay overnight, and/or offered to bring him home if they had been drinking during the game.  Not a problem, they came and got him.

On their way out, each and every one of those young men thanked me for having them.  For those that were driving, when I said, “Hey, be very careful out there.  The roads are slippery, take it slow,” each of them said, “Yes, ma’am.  Thank you.  I will.” 

Do you think that these young men had their fifteenth birthday, and suddenly went, “Oh, I need to say thank you.  I need to behave.  I need to take turns.”  No!  Absolutely, positively not!  These boys were TAUGHT to behave, be respectful, and have manners, by parents who felt duty-bound to raise their children right.  These types of behaviors have been drilled into them since they were two years old.

One of my employees came to me recently with, what to her, was a conundrum.  Her five year old had been invited to a birthday party, and she, being honest and a good parent, realized that he had never been left alone at a group event like this, and that he, occasionally, got too wound up.  She wasn’t sure whether to send him or not.  Like most things, being on the outside looking in gives us a clarity that we don’t have when we’re in the middle of it, steeped in anxiety.  I told her to “Quit making it so hard!”  I told her how I would handle it, and she choose to follow my advice.  She called the RSVP number, and talked to the mom.  She was honest.  She explained the situation to the mom, and asked if it was okay if she stayed for the party to lend a hand.  The other mom was thrilled!  An extra set of hands!  Well, guess what?  My employee stayed for 30 minutes, and “Joey” was an angel.  After 30 minutes she pulled him aside, told him she was beside herself happy with his behavior, and that she was going to go ahead and leave like most of the other parents, because he had “earned” it.  She also told him what the consequences would be if the party mom had to call her to come back.  And guess what?  Joey had a successful day of socializing with his peers at five years old, and didn’t need his mama to monitor his every move, and mama was proud, and Joey fairly glowed with his newfound independence.

The story, of course, doesn’t end there.  Just because Joey had one successful event doesn’t mean that Joey can manage every event successfully.  Depending on mood, and emotions, and sugar, and other participants, Joey could very easily lose it at another event.  The good news:  Joey had a successful day, so we know he CAN do it.  However, one episode of good behavior doesn’t guarantee good behavior for the rest of his life.  His parents need to use this one-time good behavior episode to influence all of his future engagements.  When Joey is next invited to an event, his parents need to remind him of the time he did well.  They need to tell him specifically what is expected at this new event.  They need to remind him of negative consequences if he doesn’t handle himself.  This pattern needs to repeat itself for the next nine events.  Once Joey has proved ten consecutive times that birthday parties/group events are not an issue, his parents can back off.  But, until then, they need to be vigilant.

When my children were two and three years old, I told them, every time, to say “Thank you.”  After I had told them to do that fifty or a hundred times and they still didn’t do it spontaneously, I changed it up to cueing….I would say, “Did you forget to say something?”  “What should you say now?”  There was a tinge of sarcasm in those questions….making my kids think for themselves, indicating that they were expected to do something and hadn’t.  By the time they were five, both of them thanked everyone who ever handed them anything….the waitress, the teacher, the grandparent….they started to understand that if they couldn’t come up with that appropriate response on their own, I would embarrass them for it.  Bad parent?  Nope.  I don’t think so.  I’m a parent who said, “Hey, I’ve taught you this 200 times, both of you are bright, pick it up and start handling this!”

Back in the day when my kids were able to be dropped off for a play session, birthday party, etc., when they would crawl into my car, my first question was, “Did you thank Mrs. Miller for having you?”  If they stuttered, if they said they couldn’t remember…..anything other than a bright, “Yes, I did!” resulted in them being booted back out of the car to go knock on the door to thank her.  The first time I did that, I got a look of abject horror – “What do I do?  What do I say?”  “Go back to the door and knock.  When it opens, if it’s Mrs. Miller, say, “I don’t think I thanked you.  Thank you for having me.”  If someone else opens the door, tell them you need to see Mrs. Miller, and do the same.”  Guess how many times I had to do that?  Once per child.  Once.  Normal, bright kids do not want to suffer this kind of embarrassment.  They want to do it right the first time.

Some of you reading this are going to say, “I’m not going to be on my kids butt to learn to say thank you.  They will pick that up by watching me say thank you.”  No.  No, no, no!  They may very well think that ADULTS say thank you to ADULTS.  How are they ever to understand and learn to say thank you if you don’t insist that they say thank you?  The same holds true of every other behavior.  If you don’t make your kids clean up their messes in your house, they won’t at other people’s houses.  If your child doesn’t have a bedtime at your house, they are likely to be up all night at someone else’s house….and will never be invited back.

Tracy, what does it matter if you like and approve of a teenage boy?  Well, depends on your perspective.  I own a pediatric therapy company. I have therapists in many different fields.  As my son’s friends are getting ready for graduation, they are wanting to “shadow” a professional in their field of choice.  When people call my company and want to set their kids up with a “shadowing” experience, I have the power to say yes or no.  Those kids that came to my house, were well behaved, said “thank you,” and helped clean up, or helped me with a job…..those kids get priority.  Those kids that need a letter of recommendation to get accepted into a program in college?  Guess who I’m going to be willing to take the time to write a letter for?  It won’t be the little snot who came to my house, tortured my dog, made my younger son tearful, and couldn’t follow my rules.  It will absolutely be the kids who treated me with respect, who know how to follow the rules, and who, from my perspective, have a real future.  The kind of kid that I’m hoping to hire five years from now.

Lessons for today:  Your child cannot know how to behave unless you teach them.  Roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and teach them. 

Set expectations for your children.  The lower you set them, the lower they will achieve. 

Understand that your child will, undoubtedly, need repeated lessons…..most kids don’t “get it” the first time.  This is a work in progress.  You are working towards a goal.  Don’t lose sight of the goal, and don’t give in/give up.

Way too many people focus on discipline in a negative way – punishment for infractions.  Change that to discipline related to rewards.  When your child meets or exceeds your expectations, reward them.  When you get back home after a trip to the grocery store, tell your child that they were a perfect angel.  Tell them that you couldn’t be happier that you didn’t have to yell at them at all, that they didn’t ask for anything….and tell them that they deserve a reward.  Offer cuddle time on the couch, 15 minutes of their favorite show, staying up fifteen minutes late, or a bubble bath.  Don’t be surprised if they ask for something unexpected, like to play “makeover” where they want you to sit on the floor while they “design” your new hair-do with a cup of warm water and a comb.  Or they want you to play all of “Prince’s” songs on the IPod and have a dance party.  Think!  Focus!  You offer your kid a reward, they tell you that they want to do something that you didn’t even realize was a huge bonus for them – boom!  The next time that you need or want them to do something – all you have to do is offer them that crazy, unexpected thing that you previously didn’t understand was meaningful to them, and you have a behavior under control.

Fifteen, sixteen and seventeen year old young men don’t just become helpful, respectful, trainable, employable young men through wishful thinking.  They become that way through parenting.  Strong, love-fueled, take no prisoners parenting. 

Stop making it so hard.  Make a short list of behaviors that you won’t tolerate, and a short list of behaviors that you MUST have.  Punish behaviors that you won’t tolerate, and reward behaviors that you want to see more of.  Be explicit in your expectations…don’t leave it to chance or interpretation.  Once your child masters a MUST have behavior (saying thank you, going to bed without protest) and it is established, cross that off the list, and add another one.

Those nine young men in my house?  If the Steelers had won that week, and they wanted to have a party at my house the next week for the next game…I would have said yes.  No question.  Because they weren’t any trouble at all.  No anxiety for me.  Well behaved kids with morals, respect and manners get invited to go everywhere/anywhere.  Poorly behaved snots don’t get invites.  Or externships.  Or letters of recommendations. 

While you are sitting there HOPING that your eleven/twelve year old kid straightens out/gets it together/has an epiphany….understand that other parents are MAKING SURE that that happens.  Through discipline, through rewards, through help from specialists.  Sometimes, even via medication.

Folks, parenting isn’t popping out a baby.  Anybody can pop out a baby.  Parenting is understanding that you are an adult guiding a child into adulthood. Parenting is making hard and difficult choices.  Parenting is the extreme opposite of all of the crap that you read online about letting your child be their natural selves, because every child is born believing that they are the only person on the planet and not understanding that other people not only exist, but have feelings, likes and dislikes, and a need to be appreciated. 

Stop making it so hard.  Train your child like you want to be trained for your next job – with a credible trainer who answers the same question the same way every time.  Where you are handed a manual that clearly describes acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, with a section that explains disciplinary actions for infractions, and how one receives rewards.  Where you are specifically told your job duties.  I know, I know….but Tracy, I’m not training my kid for a job.  Oh yes, you are.  You are training them to be able to handle the job of life – having morals, character, integrity, compassion, an ability to follow the rules and stay out of trouble, an ability to learn, and an ability to become independent.  There is NOTHING that a parent will ever do that is more important than teaching their child to handle themselves in a socially appropriate manner that opens doors to all possibilities in the future.  Not toilet training, not math, not a wrestling move.  An ability to function in such a way that your child is accepted and wanted in most environments, regardless of their special needs, sex, ethnicity, previous history, or looks – that is the number one thing that you can do for your child. 

Exceptional teenagers for the most part are a result of exceptional parenting.  Take my challenge and work at being an exceptional parent; I swear to you that there is a sweet, sweet joy in looking at your young man/young woman knowing that you can send them anywhere, and that they will make you proud.

 

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