Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Parenting vs. Big Parenting

Last spring, Edline sent a notification about my stepkid's Biology grade. For those not familiar with Edline, it's utilized by schools to host their internal websites, student records and staff contact information. Emails from Edline come in every few days — primarily with updates on grades so that parents can track a child's progress over the course of the school year. It feels sometimes like an unwelcome shove into hovering parent mode. Other times it's a useful tool — like when my husband, Michael, and I were virtually informed that his son hadn't turned in his Biology homework for a month.

"Looks like you haven't turned in your Biology homework for a month?" I said.
"Ayuhuh." (Translation: Ayah, sometimes pronounced "Mmnnm.")
"So, you haven't turned in your Biology homework for a month?"
"I guess."
"What's up with that?"
"Mmnnm." (Translation: I don't know)

When someone answers "I don't know," but does, but isn't in the mood to talk, or to deal with the issue at hand, I get ... testy. Throw me a bone, already.

("I don't know," of course, can be a powerful, liberating statement — for 16 year olds and everyone else — a demonstration of humility, and the confidence to display a lack of knowledge alongside the desire to acquire it. As a lifelong know-it-all — even/especially when I didn't — this has been a revelation in the past few years. I actually kind of get off on it. Just yesterday, my manager in my new-ish role at work referred to the Something or Other Special Report. "I don't know what that is," I said. I swear I had a little dopamine pleasure surge. When I catch myself opining on something I know absolutely nothing about, I will cut myself off, with a motto adopted from an old colleague [who, in fact, knew more than a little about almost everything]: "Often wrong, never in doubt!")

"Can we talk about this in 15 minutes (or tomorrow, or never)?" would be a fine response. And is rarely the response I get, despite years of modeling, suggesting, and asking for this. So, I get the opportunity to remind myself that the brain of a 16-year-old boy looks something like this:

And, since I know that neither polite inquiry nor relentless nagging can be processed by said brain, I employed a new tactic:

"Since the only thing I've liked less in my life than nagging you about your homework was doing homework, can we bypass the bullshit here?"
Lip twitch (Translation: smile)
"Why aren't you doing it?"
"I forgot."
"Huh. As far as I can tell, you have an excellent memory. Do you mean 'Homework is stupid busywork and I'd rather stab myself in the eye than do it after sitting in school all day and then kicking ass at wrestling practice for three hours'?"
"Yeah, something like that."

That right there? That was big for us! Because somewhere along the parenting line, step- or otherwise, I'd forgotten that basically all a kid needs (besides housing and benzoyl peroxide) is to be heard, and to be understood. Or, for there to be a willingness to understand, so they will hopefully talk, and thereby be heard. 

Most often what they need is for adults to shut the heck up. My go-to in this department is Vicki Hoefle of Parenting On Track, and the author of Duct-Tape Parenting. Some of her suggestions are too radical for me — not that I doubt they'd work; I'm just not evolved enough to employ them — but the basic premise that 1) training one's kids for self-sufficiency from Day One and 2) putting in the time and mindfulness for a fun and trusting relationship naturally result in cooperation, familial connection and respect. Managing, micronagging, and keeping under surveillance, on the other hand, don't exactly engender an open and communicative relationship. Hoefle asserts that when there are problems with kids, they're either due to breakdowns of relationships or lack of training.

(The duct tape is for us, not them)

I suspect this homework thing is a training issue, despite the hours and evenings logged over the years. He knows how to do his homework, but does he know when and where to do it, aside from while cross-eyed tired at night, or during a 45-minute study hall? And, do we really know if he knows how to do it? He was an honors student until two years ago, then had a slight-but-not-red-flag-raising dip in his grades that could be chalked up to the difference in academic challenge — and hormonal distractions, and heavier sports schedules — from middle to high school. He had always brought home report cards with smiley-face-accented comments written in the margins, and we were lax about checking his homework or appraising his time management methods, because it seemed that whatever he was doing was working for him, until it didn't, in the form of Cs and Ds.

Also, he came to live with us when he was 9, and while I was the grown-up most game to do so — his dad has a PTSD response to math worksheets and the smell of chalk, having been sufficiently shamed by the nuns for what was likely dyslexia — I didn't feel comfortable, at all, jumping into classroom-parent mode. His mom was suddenly, temporarily out of the picture, our living arrangement a few months' out was a big unknown, and my aim was to covertly do the parenting stuff necessary while maintaining lady-friend-who-happens-to-live-with-your-dad status. 

My involvement with his education prior to that was one incident, the weekend before he entered fourth grade. I asked if he had summer reading. I was working at a magazine for K-8 educators at the time, so I had elementary school curricula on the brain. Plus, we'd tentatively connected by reading together the four nights a month he spent at his father's. I was hyperconscious of not treading into the mom realm, but as they didn't have a read-aloud routine, I felt comfortable bringing on the kid lit, with a wall of review copies at work to choose from. He had never gotten his summer reading book. As we drove to the library, I had to chew my cheek to prevent uncharitable thoughts from slipping out in spoken form, and to remind myself that it was unfair to judge someone else's oversights when I only had one life, my own, to keep track of at that point. He picked out Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, and applied for his first library card. It was my first experience feeling parent-y with him. It was thrilling, and complicated. It would get way more complicated, then necessary, then easier, but never easy, to determine when I needed to parent, and when I needed to leave it to the people on his birth certificate. 

I wish I'd owned the academic arena with him more, and sooner. It's clearer cut now. He'll be the first in his family to go to college, and I'm the de facto docent on that journey. Come to think of it, while both my parents have their BAs and beyond, my stepmother brought me to visit a college campus or two, and she was the one who suggested I just might love my now-alma mater, a school I never thought I'd get into, never mind be able to afford (the higher the ivy, the deeper the pockets, as it turned out).

So, homework: "I get it," I said. "The problem is that it affects your grade, and grades affect your grade point average, and colleges care about those things. So, if you want to have more choices about where you go to college, you have to do your homework." As I said all of this, I felt deeply tired, and wanted to pack up all our crap, buy one of those little trailer campers, head to South America and call it home schooling, which Michael and I have seriously contemplated, if only the other parent in the picture would go along with it (not literally, since those campers comfortably sleep about one petite person and a napping cat, and she has myriad small children and a Winnebago-sized personality).

Then I had a radical and unthinkable thought. What if he's a morning person, but doesn't know it? I realized about a year ago, only out of a desperate attempt to find quiet, uninterrupted time in my day, that I work better early in the day than late at night. Really early, like 5 a.m. Maybe it's a new development borne of being forced awake by small people around the hour I used to go to bed in the old days. Or maybe it's always been the case, and unfortunately I didn't know it in high school or college, or in all my years as a freelancer.

Indeed, he didn't look impressed with my theory. I said I'd wake him up, and would make him breakfast,* if he was willing to try it for a week. Since his bus comes at the obscene time of 7:07 a.m., this meant 5 or 5:30 a.m.

This is rather counterintuitive, considering teens' night-owl circadian rhythms. Which was clearly not considered by whatever geniuses in education decided it made sense for those humans most biologically prone to staying up til midnight to start their academic day while it's still dark out four months of the year. Our kindergartner is up, dressed and ready to party on the playground by 6:30 a.m., and her school day doesn't begin til 8:55. This schedule had to have been built around bus/traffic logistics, or to accommodate high school athletics — because field hockey is critical to academic competitiveness for the 21st century, and football is a viable career path.

Anyway, he agreed. (!?) It wasn't a fix-all, but he did most of his homework for the rest of the year. His grades did go up, and he consistently ate breakfast for a change (which no doubt helped, as well).

So, here we are, at the beginning of 11th grade — the PSAT this fall, the SAT and ACT in the spring, college visits, the make-or-break year for hiking up that GPA. At this point, a few weeks in, he's entirely unwilling to get up before 28 minutes before his bus.** Edline is now Infinite Campus — an even more Big Parent-like name. I have resisted checking his grades online so far. His dad and I recently asked how it's going, and are told, "All right, I guess," which could mean he's in the front row with his No. 2 pencil and graphing calculator, or sitting behind the tall kid, texting under his textbook. But he wants to, and expects to, go to college. He said, "I averaged my GPA in with the possible best grades I can get, and I don't think I can get it to a 3.5." (Translation: I'm concerned. I'm disappointed. I might go into "I don't give a fuck, self-protection mode" in about 30 seconds if you don't say something hopeful.) I opened my mouth and urged something smart to come out. "That's good, to know what you're working with. Colleges look for improvement, though, and give a lot of weight to test scores and application essays, too. What can you do to be certain about that GPA average?" He said he'd check with his guidance counselor. I pulled up a U.S. News and World Report article, optimistically titled "A+ Schools for B Students." I watched his face loosen up a bit. Hope, restored. What I didn't say at this juncture is that community colleges are an excellent starter option, and may end up being the most strategic way to afford his higher education. Part of parenting is holding high expectations for your kids, so they can think big, but how to do that without Big Parenting? There should be a night course on the subject. Or an early-morning one.


*Another Vicki Hoefle gem is that our job and responsibility as parents is to train up, relate closely to, and back off from our kids, so they can sail out the door at 18, confident, self-sufficient, and able to cook their own dinner — and will want to come back for visits, versus feeling compelled to flee our familial clutches and be basically MIA for the next decade. While we neglected to spot the time-management issue for a while there, the stepkid has done his laundry since he was 10, puts his lunch together if he wants to brown bag it, and theoretically knows how to make a bed. And he certainly can boil up a bowl of oatmeal. But I know I certainly appreciate having breakfast made for me sometimes. There's an importance balance between fostering independence, and easing another's burden because that's just a nice thing to do, and to teach, in a family. 

**Breaking news: At 6:50 this morning, he asked for a ride. His Algebra teacher offers extra help before school, running through practice questions on test/quiz days. Just now he texted us that he got a 98.8%. (After a futile attempt to ban electronic devices, his school has an amorphous policy where students can use them — to listen to music or to look something up online — or not, at each teacher's discretion. He had to leave his at home for most of last year after being caught texting when not allowed — in Biology).
Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr