Cannabis, attachment, and teenagers, Oh my!

As many of you know, I recently took a position as Councillor’s Assistant for my own municipal councillor, Glen Gower (visit the website, subscribe to the newsletter, Follow All The Things), community advocate and overall great guy. When I worked for Pierre Lemieux on Parliament Hill I used to say “Pierre is the best boss so it’s all downhill from there” and, well, it looks like I knocked it out of park boss-wise again. My new workplace doesn’t feel like a boss and three employees but rather like four people with different gifts and abilities plugged into the same circuit for the same purpose. Glen often speaks of his work at City Hall as the work that “we” do and it’s one of the little things that go a long way in making people feel like they matter. I’m a lucky minion.

Working as an assistant is a weird space to occupy for someone who has been CEO, President and Self-Appointed Dictator for Life of her universe for quite some time. It’s challenging, especially when I feel the swell of strong feelings rising. I have to remember that if I wanted a voice at City Council, I was free to run against my boss and have my ass handed to me. It’s a free country.

In the meantime, I would be immensely grateful if you allowed this blog to remain my little corner of the Internet and didn’t assume that my opinions reflect those of my boss or the city. I’m going out on a limb assuming that my readership is small and loyal enough to protect me from the pitfalls of being a staffer with a personality. But if you make me choose between y’all and my paycheque, I’m going to have to go with the paycheque and a big gaping hole in my heart.  Check? Check.

Last December 13, the Ottawa City Council met for what some called “pot day,” a special council meeting to debate and otherwise equivocate on the impending licensing of cannabis retail stores in Ontario. Keeping cannabis out of the hands of children (by which Public Health means people under 25, Ontario means people under 19, Quebec means people under 21 and most parents mean anyone who was born to them) is the primary public interest concern driving the regulatory framework of cannabis retail. What “public interest” means differs based on your profession: Doctors doctor, Lawyers lawyer, Accountants account, and politicians represent their constituents with the range of wisdom and intellect we expect in nature. I’m not a doctor, no longer anything resembling a lawyer, I can’t math and was not elected to anything, but one thing I know how to do is impart a healthy dose of perspective and encouragement to parents who are wondering what the heck is going on with cannabis.

Cannabis is legal in Canada and regulated in Ontario by the Alcohol and Gaming Corporation of Ontario. The Ford government set the table for Ontario municipalities by taking away their powers to regulate cannabis retail stores through zoning by-laws. In essence, if a municipality allows retail stores somewhere, it has to allow cannabis retail. It cannot limit the number of licenses issued on its territory, it cannot regulate the clustering of cannabis businesses in certain parts of town, it cannot increase buffer zones around schools and daycares, etc. Many people compare the cannabis regime to alcohol sales through the LCBO  but in Ontario cannabis laws and regulations are comparable to cigarette laws and regulations. Got it?

As far as we know — and until it changes again tomorrow — cannabis will be available in 25 retail locations in Ontario starting this January. The retail license regime went from authorizing up to 75 licenses per distributor to 25 for the whole province overnight. Cannabis has been available for purchase online since last October so the question at this point is not when will legal cannabis come to your neighbourhood — spoiler alert: it already has — but rather when will it be available in brick & mortar stores around the corner.

As parents, the public discourse about drugs and alcohol has a sense of inevitability. We exist in a weird place of confused messaging from our governments whereby cannabis, like alcohol and gambling, is seen as just another business when it comes to revenues but a dangerous boogeyman when it comes to its impact on society. We are told to consume freely, but not too much, enjoy, but not too often, send as much money as you can in tax and duties but stop just shy of costing us more in treatment and social services, ok? It’s like abstinence-only sex education: stay far far away from this evil stuff until you reach this magical point (age, marriage) when all this truly evil stuff will suddenly turn good in a puff of glittery smoke. We put buffer zones around schools and hide products behind blinds as if children could walk out of school and accidentally step into a life of addiction.

I’m not concerned about legal cannabis. There I said it. As things are now — and have been since I was a teenager —  it’s easier to come by 10 gr of pot around any given high school than it is to buy beer. There is not a single contractor pick-up truck or delivery van in my neighbourhood that doesn’t reek of pot. If you think that pot shops herald the end of civilization, remember that your kid’s high school is currently the local pot shop.

My concern when it comes to drugs and alcohol is not whether my children — by which I mean anyone born to me, whether they are actually children, teenagers or full-grown adults — will try it but whether they will become habitual users or addicted.

I was in a relationship with an addict for two years. He had started drinking at age 12. In the province of Quebec, where alcohol is sold in corner stores to people over 18, he would walk out of his house to catch the school bus, buy a litre of wine at Mac’s milk, and drink it all before his bus turned the corner and picked him up. All the drugs eventually followed as they tend to do.

They say that cannabis is the gateway drug leading to stronger stuff but it’s not cannabis that causes the addiction, it’s whatever the addict is trying to numb. The root of addiction is not the substance, it’s the pain of illness, of loneliness, of dislocation. Cannabis doesn’t have to be laced with Fentanyl to become addictive: it only has to fill a hole, numb a pain, or scratch an itch. I learned the hard way that trying to control the substance without addressing the pain is an exercise in futility. And the pain is dyed in the fabric of the person, sometimes woven right into their DNA. That’s why our parenting leading up to the first time our children are exposed to addictive substances matters more than whether the pot shop sits 150 m or 300 m from their school.

Few parents understand how much influence they have on their teenagers’ lives and choices. Did you ever marvel at how quickly teenagers learn musical instruments? Or languages? Or sports? Or video games? Our teenagers are always learning. I can no longer count the number of times parents have told me with resignation that teenagers have to rebel so there’s no point trying to stop it. Teenagers have to become individuals, and while they often do it in contrast to their parents’ identity, it doesn’t have to be in opposition to it. As a parent, you can choose to be your teenagers’ foil or their sounding board.

Teenagers are wired for love and relationships. If we are not there — physically or emotionally — to provide the unconditional regard they crave, they will find it elsewhere. There is no option where our teenagers don’t attach: if we leave the spot empty, they will attach to peers or to whatever else fills the void. Behind a prickly exterior and off-putting manners, they yearn for connection. Even more: they yearn for connection with us. They struggle with the difference between agreeing and understanding because they crave our approval, not because they look down on it. 

Mental illness aside — a topic and I am not knowledgeable or experienced enough to tackle —  all the little things we do from birth to show our children that we care add up to a relationship that can withstand the onslaught of drugs, alcohol, and risky behaviours our children are exposed to in school and in the media.

I can’t promise that my children will never engage in risky behaviour. Some already have. But the best I can hope for is that when they feel the pangs of discomfort, when they have doubts, when they want to challenge the orthodoxy of their peer group, they will know that they can turn to their parents for comfort and guidance. That they will trust enough to give us a chance to fill that hole, to love them back to balance. Because in the end, when given the choice between unconditional love and some artificial make-believe, the real thing is what we all yearn for.

Podcast Episode 13: The Deal with Teenagers Part 1

Today’s podcast is titled “The deal with teenager” and is the first part of a two-part series on handling the delicate balance of privileges and responsibilities with our teenagers and young adults.

Parenting teenagers is like flying a kite: it’s all in the art of giving enough rope and maintaining tension. Should the kite ever land in a tree, would you rather be around to help your teen untangle the mess or leave them to figure it out? Some parents will say “Let them figure it out on their own, they have to learn eventually.”

I take the longer view on that one: my teenagers might figure it out by cutting all the strings and burning down the tree, leaving them with no kite and a burnt down neighbourhood; or I might help them figure out how they can climb the tree, untangle the strings and, should they have to cut it, do it in such a way as to preserve as much of the kite’s functionality as possible. Then hopefully they will have learned something about getting kites out of trees and will be better equipped to do it themselves the next time it happens.

I once met a parent who was looking for advice on handling a request for money from a young adult child. We got chatting about lending money to our kids. She said: “I only ever lend money to my children because I want to teach them the importance of paying back debts.” I said: “I’ll let the bank teach them the importance of paying back debts when they repossess their cars. As for me, I’ll teach them that their family always has their back.” We worry a lot about what we might teach our teenagers by helping them out of a hard spot; but there’s a whole wide world of people out there who don’t love them. Let the world teach them hard truths: you’re the only one who can teach them unconditional love and support. I wrote a blog post about that, you can read it h e r e.

As promised in the podcast, this is a picture of our Subaru after it took a pick-up in the teeth. For the whole story, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

The podcast opens with an update on my blogging and the deal with teenagers —  including how our car got smashed — start around the 8:30-minute-mark.

Thank you for listening and please come back for part 2.

Why are we doing this?

We moved last week, the realization of 3 years of planning and strategic decision-making. In 2010, when I announced that I was expecting twins to a friend (and fellow twin mama) she exclaimed: “This is wonderful! This will really focus you on your family!” I remember being a little taken-aback. We had 6 children, why did she think we were not family-focused already? I should have known better than to question the wisdom of a mother of 10. Of course she was right. After welcoming the twins in 2011, the futility of our lifestyle really hit us like a ton of brick. My husband was working himself to an early grave for the sake of keeping us ensconced in our busy and abundant lifestyle. We decided to sell our house, pay-off our debts, offload a lot of our stuff and live a life that was more coherent with our beliefs and principles. We bought a piece of land in the country where we eventually built a house. A house designed with the needs and requirements of a large homeschooling family in mind, where square-footage is not a thing in and of itself.
Our little piece of Canadian shield sits about an hour’s drive away from the east end of Ottawa where our children were born and raised. It is a radical move from a suburban lifestyle to a rural lifestyle, from school to homeschool, and it leaves no one indifferent.

Decisions based on convictions rarely leave people indifferent. Returning to school full time to get a Master’s degree didn’t leave people indifferent. Selling our house to pay off our debts and move into a rental house didn’t leave people indifferent. Having another child didn’t leave people indifferent. Building a house in the country didn’t leave people indifferent. Homeschooling didn’t leave people indifferent. We always elicit a reaction. We are either living the dream or delusional.

Last week, we moved 9 children away from the community they have known since birth. Four of those 9 children are teenagers. Rightfully, people are asking: “What are the children thinking about this move?” Uprooting teenagers is a bold move, especially in the absence of a non-negotiable driver such as a job posting. But if anyone thinks that we’re delusional to move teenagers on purpose, let me assure you that this move, at this time, is intentional. We are under no illusion that the move will be seamless or even easy for our teenagers but we are doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do for our family.

We are committed to make it work for our teenagers and we are often asking for their input on ways to facilitate the transition. Don’t get me wrong, the teenagers never held the power to stop the move. But there is a difference between asking for input and veto power. Our teenagers know that we have an ear for well thought-through plans. They do not like to plan much — neither do their friends – preferring to pick-up as they go. We believe — and this is how this decision was intentional — that the cream of friendships will rise to the top. This happens to most of us through the post-secondary years. Our move has only provoked a natural progression of high school dalliances and connections. We see this as a positive aspect of the move, not a negative one. Our society sees the teenage years as an end in itself, a last grab at the freedom of childhood. We see the teenage years as a transition into adulthood. Our vision for our family is to raise adults, not big children. It’s very difficult to cast this approach as essentially affirmative when the children grow-up in a cultural environment where this formation is seen as essentially restrictive. I love the analogy of arrows in the hand of the warrior: to launch arrows, you need tension. If you make everything easy for your teenagers to avoid tension, the arrow will fall flatly to the ground. Too much tension and the bow breaks, not enough tension and the arrow doesn’t launch. Moving teenagers is causing some tension, I will not lie. However, we see tension as an essential component of growth, maturation and individualization.

Our decision to move to the country was also a decision to slow right down. We wanted to move away from the tyranny of activities and the pressure of wanting to keep-up with everyone else. We were tired of fighting our environment to instill the values we wanted to instill in our children. Here, in the country the rhythms are different, the expectations are different. For instance, our new church’s children’s choir rehearsal takes place right after Mass while the families are still around. No need to book another evening off for choir practice. All the children are welcome, regardless of age, because everybody needs to make the most out of their country mileage. This is just an example of the many ways in which country folks are more practical. This is how we want our family to start thinking and living.

You may read this in complete agreement or recoil in horror, your reaction is rooted in your own values and priorities. I believe that the proof will be in the fruit. I will tend my garden and let the fruit ripen.

1-2-3 Magic. Is it really?

It’s been a quiet blogging season. The demands of early pregnancy (now in its 24th week), toddler twins and work have essentially squeezed writing time right out of my schedule. In my few writing moments, I struggle to find inspiration. The topics abound but my writing rings hollow. I have ideas that I struggle to put in order. I have half-started posts on a range of subjects, from teenagers to sleep training to sibling rivalry, with nothing to add. But a recent post in a Facebook parenting group had me reflecting and my reflection lead me to a few ideas I would like to share.

A parent asked for thoughts and opinions on the discipline book “I-2-3 Magic” by Thomas W. Phelan. It was all the rage when my older children (born between 1996 and 2002) were younger. Her questions led me to revisit the 1-2-3 Magic method of discipline and reflect on my own experience. Like most disciplinary methods, the 1-2-3 Magic approach to discipline is rooted in an equal mix of sound psychological information, half-baked assumptions and a one-size-fits-all solution. As with most parenting books, it is very difficult to accept it or discredit it on the whole.

**** As usual with all my discipline posts, this only applies to children who are mentally and physically healthy. Parents of children with special needs such as mental health issues, brain injuries or autism spectrum disorder, or parents who themselves struggle with these issues, may define successful discipline differently and achieve great success with methods that are otherwise problematic for “conventional” children. I am not an expert, just a mom with opinions. *****

The 1-2-3 Magic approach is based on the observation that parents talk too damn much. And this is true. Whether you are a screamer, a ranter, a lecturer or a cajoler, even if you engage in endless explaining in the hope that your child will understand the logic of your position and concede your victory, chances are your discipline involves way too much talking. Studies have repeatedly shown that children (and teenagers!) tune out after a very short period of talking. With the 1-2-3 Magic approach, you let a negative outcome, a time-out period, do the talking. A short explanation may be given, followed by a count to 3. If by 3 the behaviour has not stopped, the child is put in a time-out. The book’s subtitle “Effective Discipline for Children 2 to 12” infers that this method is appropriate for children older than 6. My educated opinion as a mother of almost 9 is that if you are still counting your child past Senior Kindergarten (5 years-old), you have a much bigger issue on your hands than day-to-day discipline. The fact that you may still count a 12 year-old illustrates my main concern with the method: it teaches the children to be compliant without allowing them to develop inner discipline and compliance born of trust in their parents’ lead. If you wonder why this matters, you will find out the hard way when you have teenagers.

My own experience with the 1-2-3 Magic Method (and its acolytes) is that it made my children manipulative and self-centered. When you put children in the driver’s seat of deciding whether they prefer complying or taking the time-out, you get children who become extraordinarily efficient at figuring out what is good for them in less than 3 seconds. I was discussing this with my husband while doing dishes the other evening and I said: “If you give children the choice between ‘stop hitting your brother’ and ‘go to your room’, some will choose the room 100% of the time, as long as they can shove one last time… and come out to hit again” and my 14 year-old chimed-in “That’s me!”  Her observation was only half-accurate: she never had an aggression problem but her explosive temperament means that her frustration is expressed impulsively without thinking about the consequences. Sending her to her room after the fact still allowed the release of anger in inadequate ways and the memory of previous time-outs was never motivation enough to check her angry outbursts at the door.

This example illustrates two of my main concerns with the method. First, this one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour modification doesn’t consider the importance of knowing your child’s individual temperament in finding effective discipline. Temperament, also known as our natural pattern of reactions, not only determines whether a discipline approach will be effective in modifying the behaviour but also in determining what will motivate our child to do the right thing. My second issue is that it doesn’t emphasize the importance of attachment in ensuring some compliance from our children or, at the very least, explain the absence of compliance, especially as the children grow-out of the preschool years and approach the challenging 6-10 years of age. As Gordon Neufeld so aptly writes it in his excellent book “Hold On to your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers”:

“When we focus so narrowly on what we should be doing, we become blind to our attachment relationship with our children and its inadequacies. Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired. Attachment is not a behavior to be learned but a connection to be sought.”

The simplicity of methods like 1-2-3 Magic is what appeals to parents who have a tendency to loose themselves in explanations or rants. But the same simplicity can hide the appearance of attachment voids and the growth of attachment-related issues that are often harder to address during the teenage years, when our children are well beyond the reach of time-outs and punishments. For parents who are inclined to fall within what Dr. Phelan calls the Talk-Persuade-Argue-Yell-Hit Syndrome, 1-2-3 Magic can prevent the constant attacks on attachment caused by age-inappropriate verbal diarrhea. But what we need to remember most of all is that if you need to talk-persuade-argue-yell-hit (even if you only make it to argue and yell) every time you ask something, you are more likely dealing with a relationship problem rather than a behaviour problem.

As parents, we can’t help but notice when our grip on our children is slipping. We get caught in endless arguments, tantrums, and crisis. We are unable to ensure compliance, ever. Parents who rely on coercive methods of discipline, also known under the euphemisms of “consequences” and including time-outs and isolation, watch themselves get caught in a “consequence rut” or in a “last man standing” contest. I often recall a grocery store trip on December 23rd when two active little boys would not leave the candy display alone while their mother waited in line at the cash register. “At 3, if you haven’t stopped, we’re not going to Florida!” and I was dying to reply: “As if!!” But here is the utter powerlessness of a parent who cannot simply ask her boys not to play with the candies.

As with any relationship, the parent-child relationship needs to be nurtured and built-up. Often, our children’s misbehaviours are warning bells we better not ignore. The constant resort to time-outs can prevent us from listening to our child and improve our game. To be effective teachers, we need to first discipline ourselves. How many tantrums could be avoided if we simply provided our children with a calmer, more structured environment? How much aggression could be prevented if we simply took time to reconnect and empathize with an overwhelmed child? How many meltdowns could be nipped in the bud if we simply respected our child’s shyness and reluctance to embrace new situations? Those are all “discipline” problems that are within us as parents to solve, if we would only discipline ourselves and put order in our environment.  When we punish our children for responding in an age-appropriate manner to our own lack of structure and discipline, we effectively demand more maturity from our children than we are able to display ourselves.

Does it mean that we must put-up with anything?  What about strong-willed children? In the words of Gordon Neufeld (because I couldn’t write it better):

“We may believe that our child is stubborn or willful and that we have to break him of his defiant ways. Yet young children can hardly be said to have a will at all, if by that is meant a person’s capacity to know what he wants and to stick to that goal despite setbacks or distractions. “But my child is strong-willed,” many parents insist. “When he decides that he wants something he just keeps at it until I cannot say no, or until I get very angry.” What is really being described here is not will but a rigid, obsessive clinging to this or that desire. An obsession may resemble will in its persistence but has nothing in common with it. Its power comes from the unconscious and it rules the individual, whereas a person with true will is in command of his intentions. The child’s oppositionality is not an expression of will. What it denotes is the absence of will, which allows a person only to react, but not to act from a free and conscious process of choosing.”

As parents, we need to be able to demand compliance from our children. We may not always be able to connect and empathize with our children first, especially in dangerous situations. The work of building a strong relationship of trust, whereby a child will follow our lead most of the time, happens in the little moments between the meltdowns and the impulsive behaviour. Our power to discipline is not built through coercion as the meltdowns happen. In fact, the opposite is true: by the time we are locked in a power struggle or facing a temper tantrum, our power to teach is all but gone.  We need to think ahead and own-up to our share of responsibility in causing our children’s misbehaviours.

I often wonder how often my children would send me off to my room if they could…

Preventing meltdowns, one snuggle at a time. (photo by Jenna Sparks Photography
Preventing meltdowns, one snuggle at a time. (photo by Jenna Sparks Photography

More than friends

I wanted to call this post “I am not friend with my kids” but it really sounds awful doesn’t it?

It was in reference to this widely shared blog post: I am friends with my kids. I started answering in my head before reading the text, on the basis of the title alone. When I finally took the time to read, I realized that, gah, I completely agreed with the gist of the author’s ideas.  The title is definitely an attention grabber but her position is more nuanced.

Parenting with respect is crucial to the development of a strong and healthy relationship with our children. If the importance of mutual respect in parenting is eluding you, you haven’t reached the teenage years yet.  When we live in the fast-paced and eminently physical world of young children, the immediate nature of parenting with a Big Stick can be appealing. But when you wake-up one morning with the real, potentially life-altering, problems of the teen age, it’s too late to wish for wide open lines of communication if they never existed. Our children need to know that they are loved and that we appreciate their presence in our lives. It is not a guarantee of smooth sailing but how would you rather cross the Atlantic? In a sailboat or a canoe?

While a healthy parenting relationship has a lot in common with friendship, it is a unique relationship that shouldn’t be so readily assimilated to the sometimes fickle and often temporary nature of friendship. Especially children’s friendships.  My children have dozens of friends but I’m their only mother. If I am their friend, who will be their mother?

The type of parenting illustrated in the blog post I am friend with my kids stands in opposition to what I would call “traditional” types of parenting. As a parent who opposes — as I do — corporal punishment, harsh consequences, isolation and threats as parenting tools, the author draws parallels between parenting and friendship along those lines: I don’t hit my friends, I don’t threaten my friends, I don’t isolate my friends when they are sad, I seek to understand my friends, I don’t yell at my friends. But if parenting can have some of the attributes of friendship, it is also so much more! I have skin in the game. My children’s friends do not.

Skin in the game matters because it gets us through the sort of tough times that friendship would not weather. Children can be little jerks. They can be rude, ungrateful, demanding. Year after year. Like friendship, the parent-child relationship is reciprocal but the giving and the receiving play-out over a lifetime. If my friends treated me like my kids do over a 20 year period, the relationship would probably die by the wayside, as the ebb and flow of life took us along different paths.  My kids are a ton of fun, don’t get me wrong. But the giving sure outweighs the receiving. In other words, the fact that my children have not yet died of exposure is the surest sign that not being their friend works to their benefits.

Skin in the game is also what motivates us to teach hard lessons and uphold unpopular principles for their own long-term good. My friends don’t care what I eat. My friends don’t care if I never eat a fruit. They may care if I eat like an animal and never invite me out but that’s about it. In fact, much of the learning that happens in the family such as self-discipline, impulse-control and good, caring manners, enables us to have and maintain healthy friendships later in life. Healthy relationships don’t start with friendship. Family is the root relationship from which all other healthy (or unhealthy) relationships flow.  Learning to eat a healthy, balanced diet, learning to make way to others, learning to love people we don’t always like, learning to work when we don’t feel like it can all be taught in the family and better prepare our children to face the big wide world of relationships: from friendships to partnerships to employment relationships. But they are not always easy lessons and may not endear us to our children (or vice versa). How would you feel if one of your friends was on your case about your eating habits the same way we are with our children? Sounds a little off, doesn’t it?

As the giving and receiving of the parent-child relationship plays out over a lifetime, I can see the relatively-near future when our parents will become more dependent and, as age takes its toll, more fragile and irascible. Caring for an elderly parent bears some eerie resemblance with the care they provided us as we were growing-up. They can become demanding, ungrateful, and frustrated by their limitations. And just like they cared for us when we were little jerks, we will let them treat us in ways we would never accept from a friend. We will give of ourselves in ways we never thought we could. This is the way unconditional love flows.

I want my children to expect more than friendship from their parents. I want to be more than friends.


Teenagers: Learning from their mistakes pt 2

I concluded my previous post on teens and discipline by telling you about the essay as a discipline tool. You can find part 1 of Learning from their mistakes here.

Have you ever sent a child to her room to think about what she’d done? Do you really think, while she’s there, that she is pondering on the great wrong she’s done to you? If you do, I hate to burst your bubble. Your child is more likely reflecting on how great a victim she is. Assuming she is not reading, sleeping, surfing the Net or watching TV (but your children don’t have TV in their room, right?? If they do, we must have words). Let’s be honest: when we send a child to their room to “think”, what we are really saying is:

I’m really annoyed by your behaviour, please get out of my space while I regain my composure.


The result of sending a child to his room may not always be as intended but we are on to something with the idea of reflecting on one’s behaviour and understand where it failed. The problem with “go to your room” is that we are not nurturing our children’s budding moral development by shooing them off to “think” by themselves.

When it comes to teenagers, the development of a reliable sense of right and wrong is essential and time sensitive: a teenager in grade 10 (15-16) could be moving out to study in 2-3 years. If they are not learning self-control, impulse-management and developping a moral fiber, they can be in for a world of trouble. When I tell my teenagers to “go think about what you’ve done” I mean it in a way I may not have meant when they were little.

In Good Discipline, Great Teens, Dr. Ray Guarandi suggests using essays instead of lectures to teach discipline. I met Dr. Ray some years ago when I was on the organizing committee for a parenting conference where he was the speaker. His talks are like stand-up routines: we laughed so hard it hurt. But don’t get fooled by the funnies: while his delivery is hilarious, his approach to discipline is serious. After the conference, we went out for dinner with Dr. Ray and I asked him: “That strong discipline approach sounds great in theory but the parents I know who have discipline problems with their teenagers never had a backbone. Shouldn’t they change their approach gradually?”. His reply really left an image that inspires most of my parenting nowadays. He said: “Did you ever drink sour milk thinking it was fresh? When you realize you have a mouthfull of sour milk, do you spit it out gradually or all at once?” When there is something wrong with your children, whether its too much backtalk, too much computer or failing grades, you need to face it head on. Here is a quote from Good Discipline, Great Teens that encapsulates Dr. Ray’s approach:

Dear Dr. Ray, Any words for dealing with a fifteen-year-old who is verbally demeaning to his two younger sisters (…), sometimes abusively so?

Yes. Stop him.

He does give more pointed advice on ways to stop the bad behaviour. But he doesn’t buy the “teens will be teens” schtick. At all. Yes, teens will be teens and this may involve some attitude, back talk and abuse. But it doesn’t mean that you, as parent, have to take it, indulge it or bear it out. Being called over and over on their bad behaviour — and believe me, I have two teens, I cannot overstate how often “over and over” means — is how we imprint on their developping brain what is morally and socially acceptable (and what will get them sued, fired or dumped).

But back to essays. Last December, my husband and I were confronted with a discipline problem involving two of our four oldest children. The offense involved going behind our backs to do something they knew they were not allowed to do. For a few weeks before they got busted, these two children were increasingly short-tempered, rude and difficult. I thought maybe they were overtired or reacting to the twins’ birth, whatever. In hindsight, I think that living a lie was eating away at their souls. When we confronted them, it was very important for us to convey that the material offense wasn’t nearly as big a deal as the lying. The way we approached this was to have a family meeting where we told them (again) about the family rule they had transgressed and why it was in place. We told the children that we knew that two of them had gone beyond our backs. The transgressors were grounded for at least two weeks (except for school and sports) and their computer priviledges were removed (the computer was the instrument of the transgression). Then we assigned them with two written projects. The projects had to be handed-in before the computer priviledges could be regained and the grounding lifted. Both children had to present a written apology with an explanation of what went through their heads when they decided to go behind our backs. They also had to write an essay (500 words for the youngest and 2000 for the oldest) on personal integrity, personal dignity and respect for parental authority. The oldest of the two also had to do a bit of research on why the family rule he-or-she had transgressed was important.

When they handed back their essays and apologies, I was taken aback with how much thought they had put into their work. Here are some exerpts, published with permission from their authors (as long as I keep them anonymous). On respect for parental authority the youngest of the two wrote:

You can see your parents like your boss at work. They tell you what to do and you must obey. But instead of paying you with money, they pay you with love. Another difference is that you will never get fired. In other words, they will always love you no matter what you do.

On personal integrity, the oldest of the two wrote (I really wish I could quote the entire essay, it’s that good):

Integrity. The first image that comes to mind is that of a brick wall. Solidly built, unshakeable and most of all, strong. Every component, every brick, is held together by mortar. Remove a brick and the wall isn’t complete. Remove the mortar and the wall doesn’t hold.

Personal human integrity isn’t all that different. Your values are the bricks, held together by honesty, your mortar. Without your values, your wall of integrity isn’t complete. Without honesty, your bricks will not hold together.

Giving them an essay topic allowed us to put the emphasis on the lesson we wanted the children to learn. The grounding and removal of priviledges were tools to make sure that the children had the time and leisure to work on their essays and also provided motivation for finishing the essays in a timely fashion. I am now thinking of using essays as a gateway for earning more priviledges. For instance, before allowing your child/teen to have a Facebook page, you could ask for a short essay (500 words is very manageable for a 10-12 year-old child) on data mining or online privacy protection or cyber-bullying. Making your teens do the research and writing will always beat a lecture, take it from me.

Teenagers: Learning from their mistakes pt 1

If I title a post on parenting teenagers “Learning from their mistakes” you may think that the post will be about getting teenagers to learn from their mistakes. But I’m not so delusional as to give you such hope: I have to assume that teenagers learn from their mistakes because I once was a teenager, I learned from my mistakes, and I am a relatively well adjusted adult. Beyond that, beats me. No, the title of this post refers to what I — the parent — am learning from disciplining my teens in the great adventure of parenting.

When my four oldest children were little, countless well-meaning strangers told me to enjoy them while they were young because once they hit the teenage years it would be all downhill from there. I was never afraid of the teenage years however. I had a happy teenage-hood. I remember getting along well with my parents and my siblings. I had no interest in drugs and alcohol and I had no major academic issues (I had no clue about anything mathematics or scientific but I did get my high school diploma. This suggests that I had enough of a clue to pass whatever it was I had to pass. But it’s still a mystery.) My experience chatting with other parents is that the amount of fear a parent feels toward their children’s upcoming teenage years is directly proportional to the amount of grief they gave their own parents as teenagers. Call it cosmic payback.

Now that we are more firmly rooted in teenage-dom with each passing year (we have two card-carrying teenagers with a third one coming up the pipe) I can say that parenting teenagers  — so far — has been an experience in mixed emotions. It’s in equal parts more fun, challenging and infuriating than parenting young children.

It’s more fun because teenagers have a sense of humour. They are quirky, they love a good joke and their malleable brain seems to have an infinite capacity to memorize skits and one-liners. It’s easy to laugh with them (and sometimes at them…). Their sense of humour if often dark and off-kilter and if you don’t take yourself too seriously — because they can give it as well as they take it — you can be in for a good time. I also find that my teenagers are keen observers of human nature without the politically correct varnish that develops with age. A varnish is not always a bad thing but sometimes I wish I still had the ability to call a spade a spade the way my teens do.

Having fun with gourds

Teenagers like to make funny faces

It’s more challenging  because the stakes are higher. Higher stakes mean that you are under pressure to make the right discipline call at the right time. What do I mean by that? When raising young children, you often make discipline calls that are either bone-headed or counter-productive. Have you ever spanked a child in anger? Hit a child for hitting a sibling? Flew off the handle after catching a liar? Great. Now your child is learning that hitting is a good way to blow off steam, hitting is a good response to injury and that his lying skills need improvement. The consequences of those bad discipline calls are mild. Unless you repeat them regularly over several years, they won’t make your child into violent liar.  If the balance of your parenting is loving and forgiving you’ll get another kick at the can in a few days. But teenagers can make mistakes that will hunt them for the rest of their lives: get pregnant, flunk high school and crash a car full of friends. Even if your concerns are of a lesser order of magnitude — as mine are, thank God — you still need to be on the ball and ready to roll. Your teen is flunking high school math because he couldn’t be bothered? Sure you can take his iPod away for a week. He still flunked math. And closed the door to every paycheque-friendly faculty, like engineering, medicine, business, dentistry, you name it! I don’t want my teens to learn a life-lesson from flunking math and science out of sheer laziness: I want them to succeed. If they decide to get an English major, it won’t be because nobody else would let them in. Get it? Stakes, higher.

It’s more frustrating because teens push your buttons at a more adult level and really bring you face to face with your shortcomings as a parent. When you lose your “composure” at a 3 year-old, they still come to you for comfort. When you fly off the handle and start ranting at a teenager (two big teenage no-nos, don’t ask me how I know), they think you’re a loser. (Now, if you have done your job right up to this point, your teenagers will know better than to tell you to your face — although my son has been known to exhibit a death wish in that regard: the kid has no filter.) What really rounds-up the challenging and frustrating parts is the well-documented fact that teens really think that they have reached the apogee of knowledge and good judgement. Now, if you reach the apogee of knowledge and good judgement at 15, and the only way from an apogee is down, you can imagine where, in a teen’s mind, the parent is situated on the apogee-to-perigee-continuum: it takes 15 years to get to the top, and it’s all downhill from there, and you are say, almost 40, it means that you’ve been on a downward trajectory from knowledge and good judgement for, like… (40 – 15 = uh…)  25-ish years, rounded-up to the nearest brain fart.

Teenagers challenge, push buttons and seek out limits. Sometimes, you will blow it as a parent and they will let you know. But sometimes you will be right… and they will still challenge, push buttons and explain to you why you are wrong, wrong, wrong. The high-wire number is to know when to stand firm and when to go hat in hand apologize for your mistakes. The first thing I learned from parenting teens is to take a step back and take a deep breath. Unless your child is at the police station right now it never hurts to put a little time between you and an issue (and even then, spending the night in prison might not be an entirely bad thing…). The second lesson I learned, which flows from the first one, is to lower your voice, ideally to the point where you are not saying any words. It never hurts to hear a teenager’s grievance. Sometimes they may be right! Just don’t confuse listening with arguing or agreeing. For instance, we have a strict, unbending and controversial no-sleepover rule. This is not popular with my oldest daughter. Listening to her grievance and why we are wrong, wrong, wrong will not make me agree with her. Nor will I argue for the zillionth time why this is so. But it doesn’t hurt to sit down and hear her out. Again.

In part 2 of this post,I will tell you about a discipline tool I took too long to get out of the toolbox: the essay.

Yoga pants

My oldest daughter is 15. Last weekend, her school band teacher organized a music retreat complete with master classes, section sessions and the dreaded sleepover. Her band teacher is excellent. The music program at her school is top notch. When I go to their concerts I always get all choked-up:  I have excellent memories of high school music class. We also had a few “music retreats” although there wasn’t much music during our nuit blanche. They were strictly a team building exercise where much nerdy fun was had. In my days, only the nerds played music. Now it’s cool. At bed time we would pull blue mats out of the gymnasium’s storage unit and crash all co-ed on the floor. Two male teachers, music and English, would sleep over and we would all head to the greasy spoon next door first thing in the morning for some bacon and eggs. I’m sure the teachers had some coffee too.

(Open parenthesis: weren’t those the days eh? When two male teachers could supervise a mixed sleepover party at school? Now, at my kids’ elementary school a few years ago, the custodian was the only male staff. Everyone else was female. My 2nd-grader would come home literally groaning in pain from needing to go pee day after day. One day on the drive home I told him: “Why don’t you go pee just before the end of class? This way you can make it home”. He answered that he never went to the toilet at school because the stalls didn’t lock properly and the older kids would barge in and pull you out as you did your business. Nice. I went and talked to someone about it and was told that this was going on in the male bathroom and there was no male staff to enforce discipline in the male bathroom. In other words, unless the custodian was handy, those kids could have been snorting cocaine in the boys bathroom, no female teacher would dare walk in there and chance a disciplinary hearing. That’s brat power for you. Close parenthesis)

As far as team-building goes, this may sound self-serving in light of what’s coming later in this post, the sleepovers were fun but nothing more. Massed bands concerts and band competitions, when we got to work, anticipate and sweat together were far more instrumental in building team spirit than watching scary movies and eating chips late in the night in band class. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether this was the be-all-end-all of team building because our family has a strict rule against sleepovers in any way, shape or form. Our daughter was going to participate in the music retreat but be excused from the sleeping part. I’ll let you guess how this went over.

I will not replay the (many) conversations we had with our daughter on the subject but they replayed themselves on a call-in show following the decision by a local high school to — as it was reported — ban yoga pants as part of the school’s dress code.

One of my daughter’s complaint on the unfairness of the sleepover rule was that parents would be supervising the retreat and that everybody else was allowing it. A local call-in show was asking parents what they thought of the yoga pants ban and spray-painted-on apparel. One after the other, parents were repeating variations of the same platitudes about how “Teens are gonna do what teens are gonna do” and “We did the same thing at their age”. In other words, there is nothing we can do about it. Girls are going to wear inappropriate, revealing, clothing and boys are going to be turned-on by it and that’s the way the world goes round. Banning yoga pants is not going to change anything so why bother? And I’m supposed to feel all warm and fuzzy that some of these similar-themed parents are supervising the sleepover retreat? So when Jimmy and Jessica decide to go find  a quiet spot somewhere will they brush it off as “Teens are gonna do what teens are gonna do” and “We did the same thing at their age”?

Being a teenager is not an end-state. It’s a transition to adulthood. I often joke that toddlers and teenagers are surprisingly similar: self-centered with poor impulse-control, an unrefined sense of fairness and a complete unawareness of their limitations. Teenagers have one foot still firmly set into childhood and the other in their future. Teens will challenge and push limits, this is their job. But if pushing is the defining feature of teenage-hood we are not helping them by removing what they are pushing against. Growing into adulthood and responsibilities is not learning to live without limits but learning to manage them. As a parent, my job is to form and to educate and this is achieved by giving teenagers something to push against, like a tutor on a tomato plant. And of course, as teenagers grow in age and wisdom and as they show their judgement to be trustworthy, limits gradually evolve. Some of them are removed, others morph into something else. And others will remain for the rest of their lives, hopefully.

I am not raising teens. I am raising adults. It takes a lot of work, self-awareness and constant re-evaluation. Some days I suck at it.  But this is the game of parenthood. Play ball.