My oldest turned fifteen last fall, and his younger brother turned thirteen this winter. With two gigantic man-child boys under my roof, I feel like I'm getting a crash course in how to parent teens. As a working mom, my life is busy and full. As teens, their lives are bursting with academics, extra-curricular activities, and competitive ballroom dancing. Finding time to connect and talk about what's important to them is tough, but here are six tried and true ways we're pulling it off.
- It's not a hard and fast rule, but we have a family tradition of keeping devices turned off in the car. We are constantly driving to and from school activities, play practice, dance practice, competitions, and more. That's a lot of time to talk if there aren't other distractions stealing our attention. With phones and tablets off, chatting comes easier and I find myself looking forward to the time together rather than dreading all the chauffering.
- I have a reminder alarm set on my phone that goes off at 8pm on Sunday nights. I settle into a cozy chair in my office and tell the kids it's time for PPIs. PPI stands for 'Personal Progress Interview,' which sounds way more intense than it is. It's just what my dad called his weekly chats with me, so I've stuck with the title. The kids fight over who gets to be first. I keep a notebook with the date and jot down anything important we talk about (e.g. Jake needs new socks). I have a short list of questions I can go over if the conversation doesn't seem to be flowing, but usually the boys relax and open up during this one-on-one time with me. It's something I look forward to every week, and a safe place where we can talk about tougher topics as needed.
- We set aside Monday nights as family nights. This was easier when they were little! It was a simple rule: no playing with friends after dinner on Mondays. But now it's a little more complicated and sometimes responsibilities, rehearsals, and schoolwork gets in the way, but we all try to make sure to prioritize family over all else this one night of the week. Sometimes we watch a movie together, or just hang out without any electronics. Most of the time, we play a game at the kitchen table. I'll level with you, board games are not my favorite, but usually it's really fun. We're big Settlers of Catan fans, though we like Rumikub, Uno, Ticket to Ride, and even Memory, too.
- I listen. This seems so basic, but I have a propensity to lecture. I don't mean to, it just happens. A kid says something or we drive past something I know a lot about and I'll just start talking. It takes a concerted effort on my part to rein that in and listen more. That's not to say I don't take teaching opportunities when they arise, but I find that when I listen more than I talk, our connections are stronger. Listening includes putting up with their music and tolerating a lot of their silly (to me) interests and making sure they know I care about what they care about. If something more serious comes up and I need to do some full-on lecture-mode parenting, they're more willing to hear me out because I've put in the time to make them feel understood.
- I try to say yes as often as I can. My adolecence and teen years were tough. My parents were kind and loving, and I feel lucky to have terrific relationships with them, but when I was a teenager, my dad's default was almost always "no." It was hard not to feel trusted, even when I was a super straight arrow kid who knew how to keep her nose clean. I feel like choosing to trust my kids to not only make the right decisions, but to be able to talk to me if they screw up makes for a closer relationship. And with really open and regular check-ins, I feel confident that we can navigate this period in their lives together.
- Nothing is taboo. The information kids have access to via the internet is astounding. Rather than hearing about sex and pornography from friends on the playground, they can stumble across these topics before they are ready, or seek them out amidst feelings of confusion or shame. I am not only 110% comfortable talking about just about anything, but I'm also really comfortable making my children hear me out on these topics -- I'm sure my background as a nurse helps with this. By fostering one-on-one relationships with them from a young age, and refusing to feel ashamed or embarrassed in talking to them about these topics, I've created a shame-free environment in which they can ask me anything. It's not enough to say they can talk to you about anything, you actually have to broach the subject, share some non-mortifying stories, and probe, a little, into what they might be unwilling to discuss. In my experience, they are relieved when I bring certain things up, opening the way for them to have a frank conversation. Even though discussions about sex don't make me uncomfortable, it still takes an effort to work towards creating opportunities to talk, AND making sure we talk regularly. It's not enough to say, "Hey, you know you can ask me anything, right?"
My kids are on the young end of the teen spectrum, and I know we have many more years with possibly many more bumps in the road, but I hope that the foundation I'm laying now will serve us well in the future as my children navigate the road to adulthood.
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