Teens and Parents and Communicaton

tin cansSome days are better than others with a teen and a tween in my home.  Last week I fought with Bailey about money, and with Sydney about her hair.  That doesn’t even scratch the surface of a few contentious evenings regarding schoolwork, reading, and Facebook chatting.  I don’t want to make it sound more difficult than it is, but it is definitely different.  I keep wondering at this phenomenon.  Different how? Different from when? It turns out that in my six months of absence due to successful cancer treatment, my kids changed as much as I did.

In the past two months since being reunited with them, I’ve had to get used to a high school freshman who is more likely to think about dates and ski trips than the video games over which he used to obsess.  (It’s not that he never plays anymore; he just doesn’t obsess.)  I now have a middle school daughter who gave up her colorful backpack in favor of a trendy Vera Bradley bag to be just like everyone else. I’ve had to get to know these kids all over again.  It turns out that Sydney loves a TV show called “Dance Moms” and has switched from playing the violin to playing the guitar because it’s an instrument she can sing with.  Bailey was on the freshman debate team this year and has discovered a passion for argument. He has buddies across ages and genders with whom he talks daily.

The boundaries are new; the thought processes are different. For the first few weeks, I was arguing with Bailey all the time until someone said to me, “Aimee, you have an entire lifetime to be on his case, but you only have three more years to build your relationship with him because once he’s out of the house, the building part is done.”  The words resonated: I have to think about I want Bailey to interact with me not just now, but in the future. How on earth was I going to achieve that balance between strengthening our relationship and being an authoritative parent?

Being a reader, I sought out writing to and for parents – often mothers – with teenagers.  A lot of it focuses on encouraging the mothers, validating their frustration and acknowledging what a tough time it is for the entire household.  But in general, having read parenting books, articles and blogs for all of my child’s life, I note that so many of the articles I found on the topic minister to desperation.  Sharing becomes more difficult because instead of cute little problems, our kids have bigger problems, ones that could potentially affect the rest of their lives.  That little saying about little kids and little problems turns out to be true!

My favorite piece, posted by my friend Carrie, is “Dear Lonely Mom of Older Kids.”  It’s a blog post that reminds parents that they’re not alone – and that parenting middle school and high school kids can be a lonely business.  Fewer people are willing to talk about the trials and tribulations of having older kids and the bigger problems it can cause in the family.  The piece is reassuring, comforting Moms and telling them that everything will turn out all right – eventually – and Moms will discover an inner strength they never knew they had in the process.

To that end, I also enjoyed the piece given to me by my friend Jacqueline from New York Magazine cleverly titled “The Collateral Damage of a Teenager.”  People never talk about how tough it is on the entire family when the cuddly kid turns into a sullen teen.  The piece is long but worth the read, covering topics such as parent conflict (with the teen and with each other) and resolution, sibling effect, and the most interesting part, about how and why the suffering ebbs but changes once a kid leaves for college.

These days my friends and I discuss our kids in light of behavior expectations, technology interruptions and distractions, and getting into college.  But we’re still talking.  One friend’s kid can’t pass math; one friend’s kid got on to the baseball team while another kid didn’t.  There are ups and downs and the only way to survive them is to derive support from those who have gone through it before or are going through it with you.  It doesn’t matter if your kid isn’t getting a 4.0, playing an instrument and five sports.  Parents need other parents who won’t judge or compare. We need to do that for each other.

And then there’s the communication with the kids themselves.  I have learned to listen more and talk less.  I have learned to ask questions before making demands.  I have learned to shoot off a quick text instead of calling if I want a response.  I shouldn’t say “I have learned” but rather, “I AM learning.” It all happens in fits and starts and some days are more successful than others. My children and I had to spend some serious time apart from each other and so we’re all interested in spending time together now.  That instinct might fade, but it might not. So far the kids are still communicating with me. What a gift.

Everyone grows and changes over time and it seems that the trick is to allow kids to do it safely and securely while hanging on to your own sanity – even if by a thread.  I have no magic solutions or ideas, but simply gratitude for the kids I have raised so far and the loving friends who laugh with me as we go through it all together.

Lessons in Control and Empowerment

CI’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial book Lean In.  Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, Sandberg took a lot of heat for her views about women in the workplace.  Many women felt her expectations and ideas were great for a family of a certain means and that her advice is not applicable to “every-woman.” Sandberg writes convincingly and powerfully, but many of her suggestions come with the double-edged sword of a position of privilege.  That being said, the book has wonderful ideas about how both men and women can change themselves AND the workplace to create an environment of equality.

One thing that resonated with me is Sandberg’s chapter on how women need to make their husbands true partners if they want to succeed in the workplace.  By true partner, Sandberg means that division of labor has to be equitable in the home when both partners work.  Sandberg admits that in her house, the labor is divided along gender lines – he pays the bills; she plans the birthday parties. She also says that it’s a constantly evolving balance that they negotiate often.  The key, she says, as with many things in marriage in general, is communication, not always an easy task in itself.

In the chapter, Sandberg encourages, no, instructs women is to empower their husbands.  She cautions that if women are constantly criticizing the way men actually DO the jobs they are assigned in the house, then the men won’t feel motivated to continue doing the jobs and women will be worse off than before – doing their husbands’ jobs themselves when the men give up for lack of support.

This reminded me of a story.  When my son Bailey was born, my control-freaky self went ballistic trying to have everything done perfectly.  It actually took a therapist to tell me that it didn’t matter if I did the top of the carseat buckle first and my husband buckled the bottom latch first – the end result is a baby who is safe in the car.  I had actually been criticizing the way my husband was buckling the baby into his seat! It’s no wonder I was feeling overworked and annoyed all the time – if my way was the best and only way to do everything, then I was causing my own problem by making Marc feel unmotivated to do anything for the baby, or for me. I learned to let go – a little.  Letting go is still an evolving process for me fourteen years later.

But is precisely now, fourteen years later, that this lesson is coming back to haunt me, both in light of the carseat story and Sandberg’s point. I have been in the U.S. since June taking chemotherapy for lymphoma.  My husband took the kids back to Tokyo in August to start school again.  There was no reason to take them out of their “normal” lives in Japan, especially when we don’t have a home in the U.S. and I was in no position to take care of them.  Marc has done an exceptional job of primary parenting so far, with about six weeks to go (if all goes well).  The kids are happy, healthy, doing well in school and haven’t missed a single event. Marc attended back to school nights, grade-level coffees, football games and violin lessons. He does some of these things in our “normal” life, but not all of them.  He has done it all while holding down a full time job.  Yes, we have a great nanny, so that has helped, but the primary responsibility is still Marc’s.

My job, my only job, has been to focus on getting well.  That being said, I generally talk to the kids twice a day and try to help where I can – sending emails and doing any necessary online research.  It’s not much, but it’s the best I can do. There are a thousand things I think of every day I would like to do for my kids – or do differently than Marc is doing.  I would like to handle the homework situation in a stricter way, make arrangements for playdates further in advance and even allow the kids less TV time.  But I would never tell Marc any of that (please keep my secret). As often as possible I sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut. I want him to feel like he’s doing a great job and motivated to continue the hard work. If I criticize, he’ll just feel defeated and then we would all be up a creek.  I mean it when I say Marc is doing an amazing job – handling everything with grace and aplomb.  Even when I don’t agree 100%, I still cheer him on.  From what he tells me, Marc appreciates the support I can give him, and in some ways, is enjoying the experience – certainly enjoying being with his kids more than he ever has been in the past.

This is yet another unexpected gift cancer has given us: Marc has had a taste of primary parenting and consequent juggling, and I have had a real lesson in abdicating control.  Obviously I’m not yet sure what parts of this we will take away from the experience, but I hope we have all gotten messages about control and support – both in giving and taking.  Sheryl Sandberg is right: it’s not about perfection – it’s about empowerment. Marc and I can appreciate each other for doing the very best job we are capable of doing, and thus all four of us are motivated to improve on our best selves.

Communication Issues – Text vs. Talk for Teens

writingpicMy son Bailey, age 14, a freshman in high school, got an text message from a girl who is friends with Bailey’s date for homecoming dance.  The girl told him that his date is only going with him because she feels sorry for him.  The message went on to say that Bailey shouldn’t think he’s “all that” and not everyone likes him as much as he thinks they do.  It didn’t even stop there. It said he must be some sort of loser because he often sits in a group of girls at lunchtime. There was more, but you get my drift.

To me, Bailey’s mom, he is a fun-loving, silly sort of kid who loves people of all types and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.  He had forty-five kids at his bar mitzvah last year, all of whom looked like his good friends to the adults watching. He tells me he has friends in the orchestra where he plays violin, and friends on the field where he is currently playing JV football.  However, this is my view of him – I have to remember that I have no real idea who he is at school and how he acts there.  He’s so generally happy at home that it leads me to believe he’s a fairly well-adjusted teen.  Maybe he is a bit cocky at school – or overly dorky – or something else that I don’t even know.  It’s not my business to know every detail of his social life.  I’m just glad he has a social life for me to ignore.

When I was a fourteen-year-old girl, I didn’t have such a bright social life.  I was overweight and decidedly uncool with glasses and weird clothes.  I used to write letters to various kids at school who would not tease me per se, but would rebuff my efforts to be friends.

Here’s the difference: I would leave the letters in stacks on my desk at home and then every so often I’d re-read them and ball them up for trash can. If I wanted to communicate with anyone for real, I had no choice but to do it over the phone or in person. I don’t pretend that kids being mean to one another was invented in this young generation; I just think it’s a lot easier to press the “send” button on a nasty text or email than it was for me to send a pen-and-ink letter.  In a way it was harder for my mom and dad to find out what I was up to when the door to my room was closed.  There wasn’t a mobile phone on which they could snoop into my texts and emails.  There’s a sometimes-blurry line between privacy and needing to monitor the behavior of young people.

HOWEVER, the day after this message, I learned that my son wasn’t so innocent in the whole matter.  It turns out that though the girl started it by sending a bunch of messages trying to tell him that his date doesn’t like him in “that” way, Bailey got mad at her for saying it, and called her email antics “bitchy” and that’s when she sent him the mean message.  Learning about Bailey’s role in the exchange changed my perspective pretty quickly.  To my husband and me, this was the perfect opportunity to discuss communication skills in general. As parents of these young teens, we have to take some responsibility for teaching our kids right from wrong.  But it goes deeper than that; we have to teach them about the power of their own words, both oral and written.

When he first got the message and I thought it was in a vacuum, I counseled Bailey to delete the text, the equivalent of balling up paper into the trash can.  It’s gone.  But then my husband sat Bailey down and told him that enough was enough.  This use of go-betweens and texting was inappropriate at best, hurtful and harmful at worst.  His best course of action, we told him, was to talk to the girl he is taking to the dance.  He should be as nice to the girl who was texting him as he always was and he should sit exactly where he wanted to at lunch. Then he should open a line of communication with his date, who clearly knew about the conversations.  And you know what? He did. Bailey told us that he and both girls decided (over lunch together) to just forget the exchanges ever happened. At the end of the day, I was proud of the way he handled himself, even if he didn’t start off so well.

Bailey, my husband and I learned a number of lessons from all of this.  We live in a society that over-shares. We have to tell ourselves to “think before you tweet” in our social-media-driven world, and though we have to give him a modicum of privacy, as Bailey’s parents, it behooves us to monitor his communication tools.

However, the number one lesson that Bailey learned is the power of direct communication face-to-face with his friends as opposed to listening to third-party opinions, writing emails and pressing the “send” button too quickly.  There is no substitute for looking a person in the eye and speaking with him or her.

Kids today are learning to hide behind texting, emails and social media (and don’t get me started on the grammar issues inherent therein) so they don’t communicate directly.  While I’m sorry it took a lousy experience like this to teach Bailey the lesson, I’m not that sorry it happened.  I only hope we all learned something along the way.

Blogging Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum – My Interview on Expats Blog

I have been interviewed by the blogging site ExpatsBlog!  You can read the interview and see my opinions on life in Japan HERE.

Recently I’ve been connected with other bloggers through Expat blogging sites.  These sites are wonderful clearinghouses for bloggers like me, but also for the expats who live abroad and are looking for multiple viewpoints/experiences to guide them on their journeys abroad.

One of my favorites is Expats Blog.  They have such a breadth of different writers in different countries, all writing about their varied lives in their countries of residence.  It’s so helpful for me to read the pieces and get a feel for how other bloggers relate to their audiences.

Enjoy!

 

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

clock2Writing has been part of my life since I could first use a pencil and left scraps of paper all over my grandmother’s house – my “notes” – when I visited.  She said that from the time I was about six years old, cleaning up after I had spent time with her was entertaining. She never wondered what was on my mind – I wrote everything down. I planned on being a writer all the way through college and graduate school when I realized that I needed a day job to pay the bills.  I resisted teaching for a long while because it was sort of my “family business” – Mom still teaches elementary school (finishing her 46th classroom!), my father was on the board of education for years, my uncle teaches law, another uncle was the vice-chancellor of a big university, and even my grandmother was assistant superintendent of schools in a system in Connecticut when I was little.  I didn’t want any part of it.  I tried advertising, public relations and even a computer firm until I finally caved in and got a doctorate in English education and started teaching writing on the college level.

As any woman knows, balancing the demands and rewards of work and family is no easy feat.  When our family moved to Japan, I was lucky enough to find part time work at Temple University where I could teach two courses a semester and still have plenty of time to not only be a participatory mother, but even volunteer in the kids’ schools and never miss an event.  Adjunct teaching isn’t for everyone, but I was lucky enough to have a husband with a steady job so my career didn’t have to be primary and I could focus on the kids.

Babies tend to do this funny thing: they grow.  A lot.  Quickly.  Though it seems like only seconds ago I walked down a street holding the hands of a toddler and a kindergartener, my current reality has one child graduating from middle school and the other graduating from elementary school.  Yep, in a few short months I will be the parent of a high schooler and middle schooler.

More often than not, the kids are busy after school these days and not home until close to dinner time.  I don’t always have to go with them to these activities because many of them are associated with the school and they have busing.  So that leads me to the question of what I’m going to do next.  It’s an interesting question for any woman at any time, but in Japan, where I’m a trailing spouse, sometimes the issues seem insurmountable.  I don’t speak or read the language, and most Japanese companies don’t want a foreigner working for them anyway.  In addition, with my children’s school schedules, I want to be able to take them to the US for a long summer holiday so they can reconnect with our extended family and American roots.  I can’t take just any full time job, so the Temple University position, for just two semesters a year, is ideal.

Luckily, as a writer I have a lot of other options too.  There are blog posts to read and write, contests to enter, and even English-language magazines for which to write.  I’ll do another posting on writing vs. editing and the challenges therein, but this leads me to another point – focus.  I can’t do everything.  I have to pick what it is that’s important to me and focus on those things, otherwise I’ll do many things and none of them very well or successfully.

So now it’s time to raise the bar and figure out what it is that will claim my focus going forward.  Teaching will hopefully be part of the equation, but what I choose to write and how I choose to organize my time in the next few months remains to be seen.

One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that what I want to be when I grow up is not a static thing.  The idea of it can grow and change as I grow and change – emotionally, physically and even situationally.  That same grandmother who found my scraps of paper when I was little used to tell me, “when I stop learning, that’s how you’ll know I’m dead.” I subscribe to that theory. I’m not sure what exactly I want to be when I grow up, but figuring it out is a great journey

Subtitles and the Nuance of Language

languagesSome of my best conversations happen in Starbucks over a skim latte.  This week my friend and I were chatting about movies.  She’s Korean, this close friend of mine, but she came to Japan as an expat with her family when she was a teenager, and between that and college at Boston University, the result is that she is perfectly trilingual between Korean, Japanese and English.  She has a lot of Chinese ability too, but she plays it down as a fourth language.  My interest in words and language often mesh with her ability to see language from a different perspective than I do and this day was no different.

Recently my friend had seen “Les Miserables” in the theater.  I had never thought about it before, but being trilingual has a distinct effect on her movie-going experience.  She’s fluent in English so she saw the film in English, but the Japanese subtitles that were inevitably present captured more of her attention than she would have liked.  Then she was thinking of her Mother in Seoul, who would have also seen the film in English, but with Korean subtitles.  In the Korean language, there is no “Z” sound.  This had an interesting effect on one particular scene in the movie.  The innkeeper and his wife are looking to get as much money out of Valjean as they can when he comes to take Cosette from them, but the innkeeper can’t even remember the girl’s name and bumbles around saying Colette, Courgette, and other things, and finally the wife reminds him of “Cosette.”  My friend was wondering how the Korean translator would have expressed “Cojette” since there is no Z sound in Korean and it would have made no difference in writing between Cosette and Cojette when the innkeeper calls the girl “Cojette”.  She speculates that perhaps that particular joke is lost on Korean viewers since they can’t properly see or read the name Cosette as it is meant to be heard or read anyway.  What she is pointing out is that a lot of nuance and puns are lost in translation and that language plays a role in the formation and context in which we see a film.

My friend thinks that the problems are actually bigger when a foreign film is translated into English, particularly from Korean or Japanese.  Japanese has a lot of sensitive feminine speech, the nuance of which can’t be translated into English at all because it has to do more with the way the speaker feels when using those particular words.  If the character didn’t feel a certain way, she wouldn’t use those particular phrases.  Another example my friend gives is when a child is speaking to a grandparent on-screen.  There are certain ways of addressing grandparents that a Japanese child would use that have no direct translation into English.  One example is the word “you” – a child would never ask directly if “you wanted something” when speaking to a respected elder.  “You” can be a very harsh, direct word that a child would not use. But there is no other way to translate that into English – English doesn’t have a nuanced way of speaking relationally the way more formal languages such as Japanese do.  The translators do the best they can when writing the subtitles to capture the real meanings of the ideas and thoughts presented, but they have limited structures of language in which to work.  It’s not so much words exactly as it is deferential structures of speaking.

My friend looks at the subtitles of a film with the curiosity of someone interested in language.  She admits that sometimes when a touching or thoughtful scene is on the screen, she looks down on purpose to see how it’s translated, no matter in which language she is seeing the film.  She also admits that sometimes she misses a moment of the action if she’s examining subtitles, particularly if it’s non-verbal on-screen.  She laughingly says it’s the price she pays for learning and interest.

I am now resolved to see more films with my friend, and of course, to have more lattes together.

Is There Such A Thing as Too Much Technology?

tin cans

My son’s computer is driving me crazy.  I know; it’s a machine and doesn’t have actual powers, but in this case, it really is making me nuts.

Bailey’s school, The American School in Japan (ASIJ) required him to have a brand new MacBook this fall.  We bought the top of the line machine, fully loaded, the best available.  He has to bring it to school every day and they use it in class for taking notes and for writing blog posts.  At home he uses it for research and homework purposes.

Bailey is taking Algebra, and about twice a month he has a “problem of the week” (POW) due.  However, it’s not just a math problem.  The way the teacher has structured it, Bailey has to do the math, then create a video of himself doing the math – or practicum – or whatever it is – and then has to prepare an audio as a voice-over to narrate the film, before uploading it all to his teacher.  I am fully in favor of technology in the classroom, and he has definitely learned a lot by doing this.  I’m just on the fence as to whether or not the math class is the right one in which to put the skills into practice.  This is something I’ve written about in the past.

But back to the actual computer.  This week, as he did his POW, he was chatting online with friends.  He watched sports videos between takes of his own videos.  Sometimes he even checked Facebook. There are so many distractions available!  On Monday night when he was working on a social studies project I moved my computer next to his so I could see precisely what he was doing any given second.

The school, however, has tied my hands.  I can’t take away the computer as a punishment if he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing.  It’s his learning tool and he needs it at school.  So if he wastes time being distracted, I have very little recourse besides simple nagging.  I would like to make it so he has to just sit and work, not have the distractions available, but I can’t do it.  I am having trouble teaching him about staying focused.

I am by no means a Luddite; I believe in using technology to the fullest.  But there has to be limits somewhere, and perhaps 8th grade is too young to expect kids to be in charge of themselves fully.  Focus, time-management, and study skills are things that do not come naturally; they need to be taught, and sometimes the computer is an impediment to that.

Please, if you have a different opinion, or a suggestion here, let me know.  I’m having trouble reconciling myself to my son’s dependence on technology and the issues implied therein.  Feel free to let me know what you think.