This week at NBC Education Nation, I considered how volunteering at the holidays may not be the best way to teach long term gratitude.
In my latest post for TODAY.com I looked at ways to help your kid bridge the space between little kid and teen during the holidays. (Note: That’s not my snarky title on the TODAY article. The outlet changed it from my original title: Talking Turkey with Tweens!)
Thanks to Out With The Kids for making me Number Three in “8 Things You Need to Know About Raising Tween Girls” on HuffPost Parents.
“Michelle Icard nails it in her great book Middle School Makeover: you may think you are saying nothing while your tween opens up about him or her or them or it but your face is anything but quiet. Raising a tween means paying more attention to your facial expressions than you ever thought necessary.”
We all trip over this one from time to time. It’s hard to not get emotionally involved when your child is upset. Here are some helpful To Dos and To Don’ts to get through those tricky times.
What To Say:
- That sounds (painful, upsetting, confusing, etc.) I’m sorry you’re going through this.
- I’m here for you anytime you want to talk.
- Is there anything I can do to help?
- What would you like to do about this?
- How can I support you?
- This isn’t pleasant but I can tell you it’s normal. I want you to know you’re not unusual to be going through this.
What To Do:
- A small act of kindness. Do a favor, run a warm bath, make a special dinner, or pick up a favorite magazine at the store. A big gift makes a big deal of the situation and sets unrealistic expectations. A small kindness says you’re on my mind and I love you.
- Touch base and then back off. Follow up later while cooking, driving, or otherwise being mildly occupied, then drop it. If you make it a BIG conversation your child will probably clam up.
- Remember your “Botox Brow”. Say what you feet but don’t show it on your face. Your child can’t read facial expressions very well until the late teens so keep it neutral.
- Help your child brainstorm what they can do to feel better. This puts the power back in their court.
What Not to Say:
- That makes me so mad!
- I hurt for you. (When your child thinks their happiness impacts your happiness, it’s a big burden. Keep your emotional well being out of this.)
- Don’t worry, I’ll take of it.
- You’ll be fine.
- This will probably pass quickly.
- Don’t make a big deal of it and it won’t become a big deal.
- Here’s what you should do…
What Not To Do:
- Call the school for an intervention (unless you’ve observed a pattern or the issue involves physical harm)
- Call the other parent. Chances are good this will only make it worse.
- Give unsolicited advice
Imagine your best friend came to you with a problem she was having. Perhaps she lost her job, or is in a fight with her sister. What would she want you to do? To listen, to encourage, to distract, to normalize her experience…? If you’re lucky enough that your kids are confiding in you, they’re probably looking for the same.
My kids, now in 7th and 9th grade, are years past believing in Santa. But just days ago my oldest child stopped chewing mid-breakfast and looked up at me with concern. “You still signed some of the gifts from Santa this year, right?”
I hadn’t. Everything had gotten the same rushed treatment: the Sharpie scrawl of a name across wrapping paper. “Oh, um, not really, but Santa always stuffs the stockings!” I chirped, and she smiled. Traditions are important whether they’re rooted in belief or not.
This is a perplexing time of year for parents of older kids and younger teens. The holidays, with all their magic and wonderment, make us think hard about that line between childhood and adulthood. And then they shine a string of dazzling lights on the uncertainty of where your child sits in relation to that line.
The quintessential struggle of a middle school parent is that we rely on that line – that invisible, intangible, flexible line – to make many of our parenting decisions. Do we deliver the lunch left on the kitchen counter? Do we allow the cell phone to stay in the room overnight? Do we intervene when friends hurt feelings? We wonder and we wonder and then we weigh ”this is a lesson he needs to learn” against “he’s just a kid” until we stand paralyzed and hope if we ignore the question for a little longer it might go away.
Those daily struggles seem small compared to the year-end, heart-bursting questions of whether your older kid still believes, should still believe, can possibly hold on for one more year…
We wrestle with this probably because it all boils down to our hope that we’re doing enough to create happy childhood memories for a person whose childhood feels far too fleeting.
I have good news for you. Holiday magic doesn’t end when you discover Santa isn’t real. In my book, Middle School Makeover, I write “Little kids believe in fantasy magic like Santa, fairies, and dragons. Middle schoolers believe in real-world magic like justice, hope, and infinite possibility.”
Yes, there is a seismic shift in how kids experience magic once you’re done orchestrating it for them, but that doesn’t mean their world becomes less wonderful. In fact, it will probably become even better.
Consider this: In his book, Homesick and Happy, Dr. Michael Thompson tells of a “deceptively simple” question he asks when he speaks to crowds of parents, which he does frequently and to large crowds.
“What was the sweetest moment of your childhood?”
After giving the audience a moment to reflect, he then asks them to, “Please raise your hands if your parents were present when that sweetest memory took place.”
On average, 80% of adults report that adults were not there for their sweetest childhood memory.
It’s not for lack of trying. Now more than ever, parents try their hardest to manufacture magic. We Pinterest the heck out of food to delight young palates. We orchestrate elaborate Elf on the Shelf tableaus. We YouTube ourselves in our Christmas jammies. We arrange for extraordinary classroom parties with goody bags that seem more fit for Oscar Night than Two O-Clock on a Wednesday with Third Graders.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any or all of that. If it’s fun for you, that’s wonderful! But your efforts are probably not going to create a lasting sense of wonder for your child. Our greatest childhood memories most often are related to risk, independence and success. Watch the best holiday ad of the season, to see exactly what I mean.
I know it’s difficult, but try not to despair over a loss of childhood magic. Rejoice for all the good that’s yet to come! The secret to a wonderful (truly, full of wonder) childhood, is to let kids explore their place in the world and encourage them to make their mark in it, without too much interference from us.
Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You And Your Kid Experience The Middle School Years (Bibliomotion, 2014). She also created the social leadership curriculum, Athena’s Path & Hero’s Pursuit, used in schools across the country .
Her work has been featured by Parents.com, The Washington Post, A Mighty Girl, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Fox News Good Day Carolinas, The Charlotte Today Show, and Huffington Post.