Five Things You Should NOT Ask the Kids This Holiday Season

Yeah, that’s a Menorah AND
a Christmas tree. We get around.
Katie was groaning the other day about going to another holiday party. “I don’t hate the party mom, I hate all the dumb questions the adults ask me!” she lamented.
I think I am one of those adults! 
It’s terrifying when you realize you have crossed over to the other side and are now one of the adults asking kids stupid questions. So I thought I would try and make up for the error of my ways and list the top five questions Katie (and her friends) have said are the most dread questions adults are most likely to ask.
On behalf of my college bound young friends, I have also added a bonus question.
When you look at these questions, they really are horrible. They are kind of “dead ends” that leave the child very little room for answering in an interesting way. And as Katie reminds me, making conversation is hard. So maybe we need make a little more effort to help them chat with us in a more meaningful way.
Here are the five things NOT to ask (read the question and then the response that runs through the head of the young person you are talking to!):
1. How’s school?
Um, it’s fine. What do you want me to say? Anything I have to say that’s interesting would require a half hour of previews just to get you up-to-speed. And then you still wouldn’t understand.
2. What do you like to study? or What are you studying?
I am 11 [insert age here]. I am studying what the teachers say to study. I don’t have a lot of choice here.
3. What do you want to do when you grow up?
Are you serious? Did you know the answer to this question? Don’t you listen to the news? There aren’t any jobs out there. Things are a mess. And I just have to get through history!
4. Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
Yes. But I don’t want to tell you yes because then you will say something to my parents. Or the flipside: No. Now you know I am a total loser.
5. How is your [insert hobby or sport here] going?
It’s fine. I like it, that’s why I do it. I get to see my friends and it’s the one thing I can do that doesn’t involve getting a grade so it’s cool. What else can I tell you?
Bonus: Where are you going to college? I don’t know; I wish I did. I have lost sleep over this. It’s not like I have any control over the situation. I sent in all my apps but don’t you know that no one is getting the schools they way anymore and that it’s going to cost a fortune and I still have to get through midterms and keep my grades up and do extracurricular activities and not do anything wrong before I can even find out that I didn’t get my first choice, my second choice or my safety school?

Now, here are five questions you could ask that may still challenge the young person but might stimulate a bit more conversation:

1. What the best movie/TV show you’ve seen lately?
And you can follow-up with why. Great ice breaker and will reveal to you what they are interested in. This might require you having a clue about recent movies and television shows.
2. What’s something you would change about school this year?
Chances are you’ll get a speech about homework, but don’t let it end there. Ask why or how they would help kids learn differently.
3. Who is/are your favorite teacher(s)?
Kids have lots of opinions about their teachers and this is likely to lead to a good discussion of who, why and who doesn’t make the list.
4. What’s the coolest thing you have done with your friends lately?
It’s way easier for kids to talk about their friends. As you listen to them talk, you are likely to learn quite a bit about them as well.
5. What are you doing for [insert upcoming holiday here]?
Apparently this question is asked most frequently among the kids so they should be able to come up with an answer for you!
I know there are a million more questions on both the good and bad side. Love to hear your ideas and suggestions.
Happy Holidays!

Ahh Facebook: The Strange (Dangerous?) Case of Tweens Online

Last year, Facebook was all the rage among the fifth grade crowd. Why? Farmville. No more no less – sending Mystery Gifts, planting crops and decorating the farm. Over time, Farmville got old (and they pretty much made it so complicated it’s no fun anymore anyway) and the kids got older.
Yeah, I know, they aren’t supposed to be on Facebook before age 13.
We parents went along with it because with this generation of kids, we are actually closed involved with their Facebook pages. We are “friends” with them, have their passwords and can monitor content. And it all started out so innocently. And it’s a great way for them to have relationships with family members who aren’t close to home. 
But as the kids have gotten a little older, things have changed. I closely monitor her page to see what her friends are doing.
Many of them are just posting YouTube videos and “fan”ing lame pages like I-Hate-When-My-Mom-Turns-Off-the-TV or Getting-Teachers-To-Tell-Stories-Until-Class-Is-Over.  It all seems harmless enough except they are giving all those pages, and contests, and applications and creepy advertisers their personal information with every click. But that’s not what worries me.
What does bother me is the public display of growing pains.
We all know being a tween sucks in many ways. You are bouncing back and forth between childhood and adulthood. Your body is going through insane changes and feelings become intensified. There’s a great blog focusing on the challenges of parenting and raising a tween. Now that the tweenage drama is playing out on Facebook and I am pulling back big time on Katie’s access.
The first thing I noticed was the language. They are starting to talk like grown-ups in a bar or an episode of The League. Raunchy, bad and even racial slurs (apparently Willow Palin isn’t alone – not at all).
The second thing was the sexual innuendo. These kids are 11 years old. Most still have bodies that look like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. They don’t know anything but they like to play like they do. What 11 year old needs that in their life?
But the last thing was this post: “Today I seriously thought about ending my life. Seriously.”
This was from a girl the kids have talked about before mostly because they can’t figure her out. I take suicide very seriously and I hope to goodness her mother or friends are monitoring her Facebook. But I don’t need my kid caught up in this stuff. And it will catch her – she’s a bleeding heart for helping others. Clearly there’s more going on here than 11 year olds can deal with.
So yep; this morning I shut down the tween drama.
I didn’t remove friends because I didn’t want to make it a big deal. I just created White List and put them all on there. Then I changed her privacy settings to allow posts to be viewed by friends but not friends on the White List. Finally, I hid the friends’ posts that Katie simply doesn’t need to see.
So why keep Facebook at all?
It’s a really good way for her to keep in touch with family from around the country and to follow a few things she really cares about including our local marine lab, a couple colleges, her favorite camp, etc. I like her to keep up with what they are doing and it’s appropriate content.
How-to White List Friends

First click on Friends on the left nav bar. Then click Edit Friends at the top of the list in the center of the page. Once there, Create a List (name it) and then start putting people on The List.
After that part is done, go to Account on the upper left and choose Privacy Settings. For a kid I highly recommend they are all set to Friends Only.  In this case, I Customize Settings for all her public information and added The List cannot see information.

How-to Hide Friends

This one is easy. Simply move your mouse over to the left of a Friend’s post. A little “x” appears. Click that and you have a choice, Hide This Post, Hide All Posts (From This Person). Choose Hide All. You can always get it back by going to the bottom of the Wall and clicking on Edit Options. Note, this little “x” is also where you can Unlike a page.

Relieving the Pain: When 11-Year Olds Start Cutting

Katie’s home room teacher rocks. She not only teaching language arts, but she also brings in lots of life lessons – from drinking to college admissions to cutting. Yep, she brought it up in class and it was the first time Katie had ever heard of it.
Turns out, there’s a cutter in her class.
We have known the girl who is cutting for years. We don’t know her well, but she’s been part of our local community and we used to do swim lessons together when the girls were about five years old. Things were so simple back then.
But roll the clock forward six years and life has become more complex. The kids started noticing scars and some cuts a few weeks ago. Since her teacher pointed out what it might look like, Katie was pretty sure of what she was seeing early on. It really worried her.
In our house we talk a lot about feelings and motivations regarding behavior. So Katie was quick to think about what might be bothering her friend so much that she would need to cut herself as a way to deal with it. We did a little Googling.
We found a great article on a teen site that is written very well for a teen reader. It’s called Teens Health and the article goes through the what, why and how to get help. They provide a tidy definition of cutting:
Injuring yourself on purpose by making scratches or cuts on your body with a sharp object — enough to break the skin and make it bleed — is called cutting. Cutting is a type of self-injury, or SI. Most people who cut are girls, but guys self-injure, too. People who cut usually start cutting in their young teens. Some continue to cut into adulthood. (Read more here.)
This week, the cuts on Katie’s classmate’s arm were much more noticeable. I was encouraged to hear my daughter took action and told her language arts teacher what she saw. And the next day, Katie went right to the source, her friend, and asked her why she was hurting herself. Her friend was angry at Katie for interfering but Katie didn’t care. She wanted her to know she was keeping an eye on her.
Apparently yet another student is helping Katie’s friend escalate. While the parents scramble to hide sharps and throw away the wart remover (she used to scar herself in the shape of a heart), this other student is showing her how to hide her cuts and use other objects.
The whole thing is really scary.
I am glad to know the kids are coming together around this issue and want to help their classmate. I am so glad Katie’s teacher is talking about the hard things so the kids aren’t caught off guard and can actually be part of the solution. I am hoping some positive peer pressure (along with her parents’ great efforts) will help turn this situation around.
It seems like eleven years old is so young for all this stuff. But then I guess pain knows no age.

Report Cards Came Out Yesterday – Publicly. Do Students Have a Right to Privacy?

Okay, so I need to say a bit more about grades. After my last blog about Katie’s addiction – which has been tempered, sorta   – I find I am still stuck on the subject after watching a disaster in the making yesterday!
I arrived at school a little early and decided to wait for Katie in the Quad since we were experiencing a wonderful, Indian Summer day. I noticed the kids in 7th period PE were all being given a slip of white paper and there was a LOT of activity going on. Kids were in clusters all looking at the various sheets of paper.
And then I heard a kid say what it was: his report card.
I was aghast. What! Passed out on a sheet of paper? For the entire world to see? Are you kidding me?
Clearly printed out from the “Parent Portal” (our online grade viewing tool), this single piece of paper reported the grades, included teacher sound bytes (they are so short they don’t really constitute a whole comment) and a citizenship rating. There’s no key or legend so many of the sixth grade kids had no idea what the citizenship marks indicate. So if you don’t know what a mark means, does it have any meaning at all? 
But that missed opportunity aside, what happened to respecting a student’s privacy?
I can think of nothing more horrible than having my grades handed to me, in front of everyone else, with little to no opportunity for privacy. It’s bad enough to have friends ask, “What did you get?” but usually that’s in the halls or on the phone when you can spin it in a way that works for you.
In this scenario, complete strangers were coming over to Katie to see her paper. They don’t know her but they know what she got in English! There was absolutely nowhere to hide. I thought grades were something between you, your teacher and your parents. Goodness knows how many parents actually even saw these pieces of paper. The way they were being manhandled on the school grounds, I wonder how many actually made it home.
It all leaves me with a few lingering questions:
If grades are to be valued, shouldn’t the entire process be honored? We ask these kids to work hard to achieve and then we minimize it by passing out report cards like a flyer advertising Little League sign-ups.
If parents are in important part of the process, shouldn’t we make sure these are mailed home so they can actually see them and discuss them with their child before they are socialized in the school yard?
And don’t we want the students to understand what the grades mean; especially the sixth graders who don’t have access to the Parent Portal and have no idea how to interpret things like the citizenship marks?
Somewhere we got lost. We have traded away fundamentals. I understand money is an issue and maybe mailing home grades is expensive. But it certainly seems like it should be a priority over other things to preserve some honor and respect for the process.

My Daughter Became an Addict in Sixth Grade

I was there the first time she used.
I actually gave her access to her drug without realizing what I was doing. And it took just a few times to get her hooked. I was a complete enabler.
This fall, my daughter became dangerously addicted to grades.
If I hadn’t watched Race to Nowhere last week, I may not even have realized how dangerous this addiction could become. The movie tells the stories of many children who are on the fast track to get into college, doing homework for hours, trading away sleep and food, just so they can get the grades they need to get into a “good” school.
And when one student got a “B”, she killed herself. She was 13. It was her first “bad” grade.
In addition to grades, they have to have a sport, do community service, embrace extra-curricular activities like drama or art or music all in an insane rush to a finish line that accepts kids with 4.35 GPAs. In case you are wondering how in the heck one gets a 4 point anything, it comes from taking AP classes which pile on the work even higher (read this message board conversation if you want to make yourself a little sick).
Needless to say, this movie captured my attention. Katie really never had letter grades before. We did home school last year and I pulled her from the mess that was fourth grade where they weren’t using letter grades yet. Enter Middle School where they have something called the Parent Portal and you can see how you are doing day-by-day. Test by test. Let the addiction begin.
I had been slightly worried she was so obsessed with her grades, but I also shared her excitement as she was able to study more and get better grades. For the last four weeks, she’s been getting 100 on everything which, bytheway, they addictively call an A+ – which is simply non-sense, it’s an A. But this adds a kick to the high doesn’t it?!
So I confronted Katie about her addiction when I got home from the movie. She said it wasn’t a problem. She wasn’t hooked. So I waited. I wanted to see how long she could go without looking. And then I asked her a harder question: had she ever cheated to make sure she got an A. That was harder to answer.
Finally, I told her she could NOT do extra credit the next morning for a class where she already had an A. She got a little distressed; she was convinced she needed the “safety net”. It’s sixth grade! The class is an elective! What the hell kind of safety net does she need!?!
“Mom, grades still matter. It’s not like I can’t care about them,” she said. And she’s totally right. But boy am I thinking about things differently. First, we are curbing the addiction. Then I am going to start showing her colleges that don’t require a 4.35. I am going to make sure my child knows how to think (not just take tests) and revive some of that home school parent involvement I am missing from last year – so the lesson goes beyond the books and papers.
And then I am going to encourage her to put everything down and get silly with me.
I am not going to lose her to this madness.
Have you seen Race to Nowhere? I would love to hear your impressions and thoughts. And ideas you have for coping within the parameters of public education.

About the film:
Featuring the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. Here’s a list of screenings in the U.S.

Students Helping Students: They Can Lift Each Other Up (Academically)

The coolest thing happened yesterday. I didn’t expect it to be cool. I thought it was going to be a nightmare. But man, it turned out awesome.

Imagine, it’s Monday: the day after Halloween (where we somehow picked up two extra kids along the way who ended up back at our house to watch the Giants win Game 4). I am still in recovery from the big night. And we are having company for dinner to watch Game 5.

It’s within that context that Katie rushes up to me after school  making the case for why her two girlfriends should come over right now so they could do an “important class assignment” together. I had one of those bi-polar parent moments vacillating between “are you freaking kidding me?” (my goodness, don’t we need a little quiet in our lives) and “awesome, that’d be fun!” (because I really needed to be supportive and many hands make light work, right?).

Now a quick parent to parent note: These two friends are not who I would normally choose for my kid. They have a harder time with school. And I worry that Katie might get slowed down or distracted taking the time to help them. It’s sounds awful to write it, but I think everyone’s been in this spot before. And of course, I kept those feelings to myself.

My daughter, ever the lawyer-in-training, assured me they would stay in her room and stay on track! Yeah, right, I thought. At a minimum I am going to have to feed everyone! Sheesh. But, they piled in the car and off we went.

But then it started to happen. One of those times when you see or hear your child in a way you have never experienced them before.

Katie got them wrangled (and fed) and started them out with brainstorming. They had a white board and went through a series of ideas before they started working. I could hear distractions come up – typically ideas that would derail the plan – and Katie would listen, acknowledge the idea and then explain how they would consider it later in the process where it was more appropriate. Who was this kid?

They all worked industriously on the project; Katie rushing around fetching supplies. At one point she called out, “Just a minute, don’t use ink, we need to proofread it!” Holy cow! That’s usually my line! Then, they came out of the bedroom (on time) and they had produced a beautiful, collaborative project! (I wish I had taken a picture but the game started and then we won the World Series, so I kind of forgot!).

But the best part happened this morning. Katie took the project in early so it wouldn’t get messed up before fifth period. I guess her teacher loved it. And she really loved that Katie worked with her two friends. She felt so good about what they did together.

In these times when kids are struggling at school, I really think we need to look for more opportunities for the kids to lift each other up. No one is an expert at everything (we adults know that) and we need each other to truly succeed.

I can’t think of a better way to build future bridges than to get kids working together today – on math, science, English – anything that requires listening, patience and collaboration. My goodness, one day, they could end up in Congress!

There might be hope for America yet!

PS: Yeah Giants!

Restore Sanity to Halloween: The Ultimate Socialist Holiday!

I love Halloween. It’s colorful, creative and usually good fun.

But there are weird conversations going on this year about making rules for how old kids can be who want to trick or treat – like no one over 14 should be allowed to go house to house (can you imagine being the cop who has to make an arrest?). [See also Teens Defend their Right to Trick or Treat.]

That’s crazy. It’s time to restore some sanity around here!

When it comes to Halloween, I am the ultimate socialist. If you show up wearing a costume, you get candy. Even adults. I don’t care. All you have to do is show a little creativity and have the wherewithal to go door to door. Okay, you do have to say, “Trick or Treat” but that’s is – everybody gets candy!

I love how much thought and planning goes into Katie’s costume every year. It’s usually her idea and then my scrambling to see what we can assemble. I think she’s had a homemade costume nearly every year!

And this year – and I blame her social studies teacher  – this year she made a homemade map of the route she’s planning to take with her friends with special houses identified (we all know the “good” houses don’t we?) so they don’t forget.

Katie took great care in choosing a good mix of candy based on her assessment of “kids favorites” (and no peanuts since a good friend of hers has a peanut allergy and she’s sensitive to that!).

The nation’s depressed. The economy still sucks. Politicians are fighting. Don’t we deserve a little fun (besides watching the SF Giants play in the World Series!)? And all we do is get mad at tweens and teens for being a nuisance. Well this is a positive, fun, good way to have fun – shouldn’t we all celebrate that together?

Share the wealth. Buy some candy. Make a Trick or Treater happy on Halloween no matter how old they are!


First Middle School Dance Comes with Instructions! You Gotta See This!

While I was watching the Giants take game three last night, Katie was focusing on “groking” what she had learned in PE this week in preparation for Friday’s big (first) dance!
At the commercial break, she dragged me into the office where she had laid it all out on our white board (they are closet doors and absolutely the coolest thing).  I couldn’t resist sharing it with you – it’s just too classic. And heck, if you aren’t a dancer, maybe it will give you a few ideas!
The PE teachers have assured the students that nearly any movement, if it matches the beat, can be considered a dance move. Shoot basketballs? Do it to the beat. Grab groceries off a shelf? Do it to the beat. And don’t forget to choose your favorite dance expression – that helps sell it. 

Now, put on some music and bust a move! 

Tween-age Grousing: This Strange Behavior Has Hidden Meaning

Ever since school started this fall, Katie has come home with weird stories about new behaviors she’s experiencing now that she’s in middle school. These are things the kids didn’t do before middle school (well, maybe a little but nothing like what’s happening now). It goes like this:
Katie opens her lunch her friend immediately asks, “Can I have that?” referring to her cookie, chips, pretzels, insert food item here.
Walking across the Quad at lunchtime, an eighth grader who doesn’t know her at all says, “Can I have a dollar?”
In class, a student assistant, a seventh grader says, “You need to give me some money!”
In another class, a friend spies her Silly Bands and begs, “Can I have one paahhhllleeessseee?”
What the heck is going on? Apparently it’s relentless and for some reason, my daughter has the good sense to say no. But I am really not sure why. I mean some of these people are her friends or at least people she’s friendly with. As for the older kids, I can’t believe she has the courage to rebuff them. But she does (thank god) and she feels completely comfortable telling them to take a hike.
But what is really going on here? This was really bugging me. So I asked an expert – my friend, her principal. Since she’s made a career out of middle school-aged kids, I figured she’d be able to clue me in. She did.
So what’s behind “the ask”?

Turns out there are two different kinds of motivations behind “the ask.” The first is kind of sweet, not so much because of what the kids are doing, but why they are doing it. When “the ask” is peer-to-peer, it’s really a desperate attempt to form a social connection.
What the child is really saying is, “do you like me? If you do, you’d share with me,” which, I admit is a bit clunky. But it makes sense. These are kids who are thrown together, many aren’t friends but are friendly, and they have no idea how to approach someone and make a friend. So this awkward social bargaining ensues.
Now the other “ask” is really about power. As you might have noted, the person asking is typically older and inherently has more power in the relationship (bigger graders preying on younger graders). If the child asking succeeds in getting what he or she wants – most often money, but Katie has also been asked for school supplies and food – then they “win” the power struggle. And I have to believe that poor kid who gave in will be an easy ask the next time.
As I talked about this with Katie, she totally got it. It was like a light went on. “Of course,” she said, “it’s all about power. I am so telling my friends to tell those other kids to bug off.” But on the friendship side of things, when I offered a suggestion of how to handle things differently, she told me I am full of it. She says she has it figured out and it will be fine.
No one is getting her stuff.

The Sheer Pain of Being a Tween: So Simple but So Awful

I woke up yesterday fired up. Fall – my favorite time of year!
I had scoped out an event at our local crafts store, Beverly Fabrics, and I knew Katie was going to love it. They were offering small craft projects of the fall variety with a hint of Halloween thrown in. This would be great.
Except it wasn’t great.
Beverly’s was doing a good job. Adults were decorated in costumes and silliness. People were milling around inside and out and the craft tables were set up with lots of little things to do. But Katie froze when she saw them.
Normally, I would have had to let her run ahead to get to all the stuff. Typically I have to find things to keep myself occupied while she managed “just one more.” But not this time.
As we approached the store, she started to get slightly agitated.  “Want to do a craft,” I asked. “No,” she quickly replied. So we went inside. “Look at all this great stuff,” I said pointing out several, wonderful fall creations. “Yeah,” she countered, barely moving. “Want me to make a scarf for you in school colors,” I asked desperately, trying to find some way to connect. “No,” she said, “I think we should go.”
Hmm. This was totally weird.
We got back in the car and I stalled to think of something else we could do. I wanted to do anything other than go back home and stare at each other. I looked over and Katie was quietly crying. We sat together quietly. I realized this was one of those moments I have read about. A classic tween dilemma.
She really wanted to do the crafts, but she felt too old and horribly self conscious. She was caught in that awful place between being a kid and being a teen.
The rest of our day basically sucked. She was depressed and I eventually caught it. She still doesn’t have any girl friends at school and I think not having anyone to talk to adds to the complexity.
So as the day ended, her feelings finally got crystallized in her head and we talked about what happened. She was so sad she missed the chance to do something she loved. But she also realized she didn’t really have control over her conflicting feelings when the hit her at the store.
Gratefully, today is a much better day. Being a tween is very exciting, but sometimes, it just plain sucks.