Letter to my future self

Dear future self,

I’ve been seeing parents dealing with their teenage and middle school children lately, and sometimes it makes me cringe. Based on my own memories of being a teenager, and my experiences teaching teens for three years, it seems like a lot of people go about it all wrong.

Here’s a few things I want to be very careful to remember in ten years, because I can only assume that the parents I see have forgotten these things, and their children suffer for it.

 

Teenagers aren’t scary monsters

Teenagers are not horrible monsters that come and replace your sweet babies after a few short years and do their best to ruin your life. Based on the reactions I get when I tell people I like teaching middle school, and the self-pitying comments I hear from parents, I get the impression many people think this.

Adolescence is just the next stage in a child’s development, and while it will be difficult because of hormones, mood swings, and potential personality clashes, it can be a wonderful time if managed properly. Young adolescents have the energy and enthusiasm of a child, coupled with a budding adult intelligence, which makes them a lot of fun if managed properly.

 

Teenagers need respect

Just because you are someone’s parent doesn’t mean that you can disrespect them and their ideas and still expect them to respect you. Respect is a two way street, even in parenting.

Teens and preteens are if probably more sensitive about their personal dignity than you are. If you demean your child you are placing him in an impossible situation: either he must accept it and see himself as worthless, or, if he wishes to see himself as redeemable, he must see you as wrong.

 

Teenagers are neither adults nor children

They are not adults, of course, and they need to be guided towards good choices and guarded from bad ones. Internet filters and rules about technology are necessary. Just as you wouldn’t give a fourteen year old a car, a credit card, and a full liquor cabinet with no guidance, a full-function smart phone is too much for a teen to handle without guidance.

However, this does not mean they can or should be treated like two year old olds.  They must be given opportunities to learn responsibility. And this means no more and no less than giving them responsibility. They need to be treated as competent if they are ever to become so. And they have to be given the opportunity to make mistakes. The great thing about giving a teenager limited responsibilities is that they can learn about making mistakes while the consequences are manageable.

A twelve year old should be able to do all of these things:

  • Keep track of their own school work. (It’s not your job as a parent to pack your fifth grader’s backpack–don’t let anyone tell you different. If they forget something at home, the consequences will be relatively small, and should be felt by the child.)
  • Decide what appropriate winter wear for the day is. (If you’re doing something unusual, guidance can still be helpful)
  • Plan and cook a simple meal for the family
  • Babysit younger siblings (maybe not for days at a time, but certainly for an evening out).
  • Do their own laundry. This doesn’t mean they have to do all their laundry, but you shouldn’t have to hunt down their dirty clothes, or did their clean ones.
  • Earn money working for people (they will need help connecting with people to work for)
  • Respectfully and intelligently discuss their own rules and discipline. (Teach your child how to respectfully ask for exceptions or modifications to the rules)
  • Set personal goals (with help)
  • Start budgeting and tracking their expenses
  • Go to the store, ride bikes, or take walks in a reasonably safe neighborhood without a hovering adult.
  • Order their own food at restaurants without your help. (Giving them a budget is reasonable)
  • Start using power tools under supervision
  • Mow the lawn
  • Take care of their own garden plot
  • Remember to bring their own things to routine events. Church books, school supplies, etc.
  • Understand that they are a contributing member of the household with responsibilities in making everything run smoothly.

 

Depression is not just a bad attitude

A lot of teenagers suffer from more or less severe depression. If your kid has consistently bad moods, low energy, poor sleep, or general lack of motivation, it’s likely not just a bad attitude. You won’t solve it by yelling at them. It’s probably not their fault.

 

If your kid has these problems, look for simple solutions first.

  • Trauma: if the behavior came on suddenly, figure out if there was a trauma of some kind. Gently try to get your kid to tell you what happened and work through their feelings in a positive way. Having a good, respectful relationship with your kid is invaluable for this. (Depression-causing trauma doesn’t have to be something serious like sexual assault. Even something as trivial as being called a “baby” by an authority figure can cause long term issues if not sorted out. Trust me.)
  • Exercise: Make sure your kids are getting enough strenuous activity. Outdoors is best. If a person is already depressed, they will almost definitely need company to help them exercise.
  • Nutrition: a good multivitamin can do wonders, especially for girls. And almost everyone who doesn’t live in the tropics can benefit from taking vitamin D3.
  • Social life: does your kid get out and spend time with good friends often enough? Healthy social interactions can keep you break the downward spiral of negative thoughts.
  • Responsibility: if you have nothing in your life that is your responsibility and of which you can take ownership, minor depression can quickly develop into feelings of worthlessness. It’s important for everyone to feel that they have a role to play and that they would be missed.

Depression is sometimes a physical condition that doesn’t respond to normal methods like those above. Antidepressants can help in extreme cases, but alternative medicine usually has fewer side effects and can sometimes yield very good results.

 

At the moment, dealing with a two-year-old, I look forward to the day when I can have an intelligent conversation with my own child. I look forward to being able to start having a friendship with my child, to trusting her, to learning things from her, to watching her mind grow and develop as she becomes a woman.

I know it can be hard to share a house–and especially a kitchen–with another woman, and this is probably part of why so many mothers struggle with their teenage daughters. And I know it’s hard to watch a child struggle and learn things the hard way, and that this is what growing up looks like. And I am sure I will have my share of arguments and disagreements with my children as they grow up.

But hopefully this letter will remind me that my children are people and that they want to be treated like people. And that adolescents can be very enjoyable.

Getting Along with Middle Schoolers.

Getting along with your middle schooler

I used to teach 7th and 8th graders, and I loved it. But when I told most people about my job and how much I enjoyed it, they looked at me as though I was insane.

A large percentage of the population seems to think that middle schoolers are about the worst kind of human there is, and that dealing with them on a regular basis is nothing short of torture. Many parents live in dread of their children turning thirteen, and savor the childhood years, assuming, for some reason, that parenting will be miserably from that moment on, until, perhaps, grandchildren show up on the scene several years later.

But I think that middle schoolers are wonderful, and that the reason so many people have difficulty with them is that they don’t understand how to deal with them. In my experience—though I must admit I don’t have middle schoolers of my own yet—middle schoolers want three things, and if you give them those three things, the majority of them will be happy and cooperative.

Respect

Middle schoolers, like most humans want respect more than almost anything else. We don’t usually have a lot of difficulty giving fellow adults respect. We are used to thinking of them as people like us who have similar wants and desires. The trouble with middle schoolers, is that they are developing adults, who are only partially grown up, and only have the beginnings of the qualities we automatically respect in fellow adults.

The trouble is that while middle school aged children often seem to have the self-control of children, they are as touchy about their dignity as an adult would be—more so in fact, because they have so little to base their sense of self-worth on as yet. This would be hard enough to deal with, but when you add to that the fact that it is often hard to remember that your children are growing up and that they aren’t your helpless babies anymore, you get a hopeless mess.

In my experience, what middle schoolers want is to be treated like human beings. They want to be recognized as no longer children. Many civilizations had special coming of age ceremonies for children who of about 12. Psychologically, this makes a lot of sense. 12 year olds have minds of their own, and want to be talked to as though their ideas mattered.

I was always very careful not to call my students “children.” I tried to call them students, or boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, or any other age-neutral term. By listening to their ideas and thoughts as though they mattered, just as I would to a fellow sdult, I not only modeled respectful behavior, but bolstered their self-esteem.

And when I treated them as if they were somewhat grown up, this gave me the right to expect more grown-up behavior from them, which further bolstered their self-esteem.

Responsibility

While many adults try to avoid responsibility, middle schoolers, in my experience, rarely do. They understand that responsibility is related to growing up, and that if they are entrusted with responsibility, this is an honor. At this age, they need to be given more and more autonomy, but they also need strong limits. Giving them responsibilities will fulfill both these needs.

If they have responsibilities that they understand and have accepted, they will accept correction for failing to do them better than they will accept correction for breaking rules which they see as arbitrary and pointless.

I allowed my students to help write their own rules for the classroom, and they admitted that the rules we created were reasonable and helpful. As a result, I never once had a student complain of unfairness when I reminded them of the rules. I did have to remind them, but I always tried to do so in a way that was respectful. Rather than saying, “You disobedient child, how dare you disobey MY rule?” I tried to remind them that there was a rule that they had agreed to, and that they understood the reason for. If they persisted in breaking the rule, I tried to keep the consequences what we had discussed, rather than arbitrarily making up stuff. This sort of system allows young teens to feel that they have control over their lives, and makes them much more cooperative.

But young teens don’t just want respect and responsibility, they also want something more.

Adventure

The young teens I have met, and my past self at that age, want something more from life than comfort and ease and material success. I remember reading Last of the Mohicans and Lord of the Rings, and wishing desperately that I too could do noble and glorious things, preferably in a romantic setting like untouched American forests, or the mysterious mythical land of middle Earth.

People this age want noble ideals. We can help them develop strong ideals by giving them good books to read, and especially by modeling noble behavior. Twelve and thirteen-year-olds are harsh judges, as anyone knows who spends time with them. They need to be given good principles to judge on, and they need to see their authority figures living in accord with those principles.

And if they can be given an opportunity to do something exciting and fun, that is also noble and virtuous, they will be the happiest people around.

Some books that will inspire and entertain your middle schooler: (These are affiliate links)

I loved these four books as a kid, and I still love them. They center around the fictional country of Letzenstein, and its royal family and are full of adventure and excitement. Each book stands alone, but they are more fun as a set.

 

This action packed story follows one of the Czar’s couriers across the expanse of Russia and into Siberia on a quest to give an important message to the Czar’s brother. Michael Strogoff is equal to all obstacles, and courageously sticks to his quest despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including a barbarian invasion.

 

Set in Holland in World War II, this story follows the adventures of a couple of young boys who face challenging experiences and learn about courage and sacrifice for a good cause. Their family shows them examples of true courage and nobility, but it’s not at all preachy. It’s an exciting adventure story that kids love.

 

Ralph Moody writes about his experiences as a young boy living in Colorado in the very early twentieth century. His father and mother and their friends teach him how to ride horses, the value of money, and most importantly, how to be a strong upright man. The rest of the series is amazing too. (Content alert: His father dies.)

 

Tolkein’s magnificent tale should inspire and entertain both teens and adults.

Making Memories or Growing Up?

I have an eight-month-old baby right now, and she is very charming. I am fully aware of this, and I am appreciating and enjoying it. But when I go places with her, people tell me, “You need to enjoy this time with your baby. They grow up so fast!” I feel tempted to retort something like, “I hope to enjoy that too!” Or, “What, are you expecting me to raise a monster?”

Now I get it, babies are charming, and innocent, and sweet, and helpless, and it is a lovely phase… But it is only a phase, and if it lasted more than a year, there would be a serious developmental problem.

Appreciate What We Have

I agree that we should appreciate the different stages in our lives. Each phase happens only once, and has unique features that set it apart from other stages of life. And taking baby pictures and making baby journals can be happy and useful activities. (If nothing else, 20 or 30 years later, when your kids ask you how to deal with babies, you’ll have something to tell them because you will be able to refresh your memory with the journal and the photos.)

But “enjoying” your baby can become an obsession, too. In fact, some people are so overwhelmed by being told to enjoy their babies, that it comes as a relief when people tell them that it’s okay that you aren’t necessarily enjoying your sleepless nights, and being bitten by your teething baby. Some mothers end up with unnecessary feelings of guilt because they are not taking enough baby pictures, or not getting professional pictures taken.

In a few years, people will probably start telling my child that she should enjoy this time when she has no responsibilities, because “Life will never be so carefree again.” Then in highschool, she will be told by well-intentioned adults that, “These are the best years of your life, you need to enjoy this time, because once you’re an adult all the fun is over.” And then she will graduate, and if she starts thinking about getting married, the message that will face her everywhere is that the wedding is great, not the marriage, and it all goes downhill from there.

Now, once again, I do think that children should enjoy their childhoods and that teenagers should have some fun in highschool. And it is true that adults have more responsibilities than children, and that responsibilities can be hard. (See my article about why responsibility is actually amazing) But there is no reason why the rest of their lives must be pointless drudgery.

Babies are supposed to grow up; that’s what babies are for. Children are supposed to become adolescents and adolescents are supposed to become adults. And the more you grow as a person, the better your life should be. Your experiences are there to make you grow. And the goal of growth is maturity.

Experiences Are for Growth

Each stage of life comes with experiences that are unique to it. And the purpose of these experiences is to allow us to grow into better, more mature people—to develop virtue, as philosophers would have once said. A baby is working on developing physical virtues when she sticks her toes in her mouth, or crawls, or takes her first step. This is why these events should be celebrated, not because they are “memories” that you will be able to savor in your later life.

Your baby grows into a child. Soon your child can not only walk, but run, talk, and read books. Each of these events should be celebrated, because each of them marks a stage of development toward the virtuous adult that your child is meant to become.

And then your child becomes a teenager. Teenagers have an instinctive desire to grow up. They want to take responsibility for their lives, but they aren’t very good at knowing what good decisions are. Their behavior is often looked upon as rebelliousness by their parents, and in a way it is. It is the adult attempting to put away the things of the child. But teenagers lack the control that an adult needs to handle adult responsibilities alone. He or she should be helped to reach that goal. But if the teenager is told that teenage years are basically just an extension of childhood, and that he will have no new responsibilities, but continue to be treated as a child, he is bound to be frustrated. Or if he is told that being a teenager is the best time of his life, he is unlikely to take the effort to learn the self-control needed to become a responsible adult.

The teenager’s attempts to gain independence should be celebrated too, even as they are disciplined and directed, because they are an attempt to develop the virtues of the adult. It is also important to make the teenager realize that responsible adulthood is the goal to which he should be striving, and not “having fun” or “making memories.”

It is strange to me that people still tell teenagers that highschool is the best years of their lives despite the prevalence of teenage depression and even suicide. I wonder how many of them are depressed because they have been told that life goes downhill from there, and they find that life is already unbearably bad.

A more useful tactic would be to give them a mission to accomplish, something to take their minds off the feeling of pointlessness they so often have. What we should tell them is something more like what Jordan Peterson says in 12 Rules for Life: “We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for our individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”

Now of course no teenager can do this alone, or without direction. They will need guidance to find their own way to make the world better. And if they do this, and only if they do this, their own lives will become better, as they themselves grow and develop.

Let’s Empower Ourselves

A mature adult is one who has accepted responsibility for is or her own life. The mature woman has recognized that she can make a difference in her world, and that she has the duty to do so. She cannot blame someone else for all her problems, which might seem hard at first. If you can blame someone else for your problems, then you can momentarily feel good, “It’s not my fault.”

But the victim mentality is the most dis-empowering mentality in the world. If nothing is your own fault, then you can’t fix anything. If you can’t fix anything, then life is hopeless, and you might as well give up now. And I think it is closely tied up with the “making memories” mentality: the idea that you must try to get the most possible pleasure out of life, right now, rather than doing something that is meaningful and good, just because it is meaningful and good.

“Just enjoy them while they’re young. Soon they will be teenagers.” Implied in this seemingly innocent comment is the idea that your children will be awful when they are older, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When people tell children or teenager that they need to enjoy their lives now because being an adult is harder, what they are really telling them is that they will have no power to make their lives better. In fact, they are telling them that the more power over their lives they have, the worse it will get.

Let’s stop trying to “make memories,” and start trying to learn and grow. And if making baby albums helps us and our children learn and grow, then let’s make baby albums. Let’s stop telling our kids that their lives are better now than they ever will be again, and start helping them develop the skills and virtues they will need to make their adult lives more satisfying and fulfilling every day.

And finally let’s do good things just because they are good, and fun things just because they are fun, and not because some future version of ourselves will be able to sit in a rocking chair and say, “Remember when…”