Monday, 23 March 2015

PaRENTing, ParenTEENg...

One of the first nice spring days last year an unusual thing happened to me: as I was backing out of the garage in my Toyota Rav 4, in the rearview mirror I spotted a man sitting in the very middle of our driveway. A bit startled, I immediately cut the engine and stepped out of the car to find a young fellow sitting on the ground picking loose stones out of our driveway. It was only then that I remembered my husband telling me that someone would be coming to fix those stones for us.

I introduced myself.  He had a broad smile and seemed to be in his late twenties. I made a little joke - something along the lines of a blonde driving an SUV – and then asked him not to risk his life by letting me manoeuvre around him. Unexpectedly, he scooted sideways and picked up two crutches that were lying on the grass. He then swiftly arose using only his impressive upper body strength and smiling all the while spoke a cheerful: "Here you go, Miss!"

I have to admit that although I have completed all sorts of disability and sensitivity-training modules, I thought about him that whole day, and I felt sad.

Karen Salmansohn wisdom
And now, this spring, in a seemingly-unrelated turn of events, I have found myself over and over again on the receiving end of what quite a few concerned parents have been telling me about their teenagers. The sheer volume and variety of feedback from both the "strangers" I coach as well as the people much closer to me has resolved itself in my head as the most prominent current topic.

Kids are talking back. Kids are failing school. Kids are hooked on gaming. Kids are having sex.

What did she say to you? How did the teacher react? How many hours was he playing that game?  Have you approached the topic of safe sex?

Forget about my coaching skills: the parent of a confident and well-balanced 19-year old immediately offered a silent prayer and a thank you to her first-born. Parenting him was a breeze. Or was it really? The beautiful thing is - I don't remember. Long ago I heard my favourite parenting quote - in Serbian - from a beautiful and wise woman who single-handedly dealt with some of the toughest life's problems while parenting. I am happy this wisdom has found its place in Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project. It goes: "Days are long but years are short". 
Simultaneously, that same parent of a 4 and a 6-year-old nearly freaked out as I calculate that by the time these 'midgets' have reached that same trying age, I will likely be right in the eye of the hormonal hurricane called menopause. I remember my own good mother urging me to work on finally checking out of puberty - the late bloomer that I was - as she felt she was riding on a speed-train headed straight to hot flashes and night sweats. It was not advisable that the two of us cross paths as crash would have been inevitable. Casualties guaranteed.

Life is busy and messy by default for those who have children. What do you do when these former little darlings start exploring life with no warning and at full speed "21st-century style": noise-cancelling earphones on, a smartphone glued to the palm of their hand, the screen lighting up every few seconds and an occasional photo disappearing as soon as it appears?!

I won't pretend I am a parenting expert who understands the psychology of adolescents and family dynamics - for all I know, my parenting style all those years while being a single mother was called "winging it". Miraculously though, it worked. It worked mostly – or perhaps because - my child was very clear he should not mess with the one parent he actually had. The sweet fact about single-parenting is that there is no struggle between different parenting styles. There is no good cop/bad cop. The little negotiators (read: manipulators) can't strike a deal behind your back. For every problem, guess what? You still have to come to me. And me only. And if I am any good, very soon you will be able to guess my response with near 100% predictability. Predictability was my best ally raising that kid on my own.

For the last few weeks I've been mulling over what would be the most effective advice I could give to all the concerned and loving parents, the future me included, who have been hijacked against their will into the mess of "big kids' problems".

From a personal trainer
The best way to narrow it down is a two-step process: fast forward and take care.

First: fast forward a decade. What does life look like?

What would the future you tell you about you as a parent from this sensitive time?

Were you a gong-show parent who exploded with each new 'undesired' event? Were you disintegrating into smithereens mourning 'what could have been' should your child have obeyed all the rules you laid out? Were you the human equivalent of a drone hovering above your kids attempting to prevent ‘bad’ things from happening, even at those times when their decisions should start being considered personal and theirs alone? Were your kids altering the truth to protect you from you while sombrely facing their real issues?

Or were you a parent who knew how to listen; how to say - "Wow, hold on darling, are you sure that was safe?" A parent who received all the facts with "help me understand" as the only reaction. A parent who, no matter the news, could take a deep breath and say: "This did take me by surprise - but I am here, no matter what. And I love you. Always.”

Second: take care of yourself first. You’ll need all your strength, sanity and humour to be able to push through this and every other part of life. Equally important, your child needs to see (not hear) that all of life doesn’t orbit around them. No matter how loud or defiant they get, right now they do feel lost - the last thing they need is all the attention while figuring their stuff out.

That’s right: They have to figure out their choices. They have to ‘rescue’ themselves. You can stand by or listen or strategize if it’s welcome. Most of all just love them through it, seeing them a few years from now as solid, on their feet and well on their way to the life that serves them best - and much wiser for this rough patch.

One of my biggest epiphanies, coming from the Serbian culture of mothers who love to sacrifice, was to put myself first. Then came my son. Many methods describe this principle through the attendant’s safety instruction recited at the beginning of each flight: “put your oxygen mask first before assisting other passengers”.

I saw myself as a tree trunk that needed to be strongly rooted and nourished in order to provide for that light green, fresh little new branch with a tiny leaf on it. It took some serious work but I did achieve a zero sacrifice/zero guilt equation. This served my son really well.

Now that my big kid is on his own, making decisions about what to study, what course to drop, with whom to move off campus, how to spend his free time, etc., it may sound dry, but I see the past 19 years as "renting" the time and space with him. I paid in unconditional love, effort to figure out a better way, time (as in buckets of patience) and then some money too, to have the opportunity to grow this young life. To be a part of his journey. At first, just to love, nourish and sustain him. Then slowly to teach and empower him, while modelling the healthy behaviours myself. Then finally, to trust him, to see him start to self-direct and let him go explore life on his own. And then to tell me about it when he is in the city or when I'm in town or when we are both on-line and he is done Skype-ing someone very important to him ;-). I am no longer 'renting'. He having me in his life this much is completely optional. And I'm grateful.

I love the line Hal Edward Runkel, a licensed marriage and family therapist, wrote in his book Scream-Free Parenting: "The truth about children (and the stock market) is that past performance is never a guarantee of future results." This can help us to see all children, no matter what headache they may be causing their parents this very moment, as whole and capable of great things.  Perhaps this hardship is their best education to date, the lesson that had to come in this exact shape and form. Envisioning best-case scenarios and meditating on them perhaps the last five minutes before falling asleep is a great use of our parenting time. Worrying about potential even worse-case scenarios just seems like choosing a very sinister energy to marinate in thinking it will help. Perhaps a part of our 'rented' time with our soon-to-be grown-up children is to learn and apply that alluring unconditional love coupled with the absolute absence of judgement. They need this lesson. It’s all good.

Just as the sun was setting a year ago and I was coming back home from work, I met a woman who was parked in front of our home, MADD sticker on the back of her car, blocking the now neat and repaired cobblestone driveway. She opened her window and cheerfully waved at me saying: "Sorry, I am just picking up my son, he will be out in a minute."

I turned off the engine and stepped out, intrigued: "I met your son this morning... he left quite an impression on me!"

"Oh, he is stellar! I am so proud of him.” Then I learned it wasn't always easy:  “At 17 he got caught up with the wrong crowd and was in a motorcycle accident while driving drunk." Thankfully, no one else got hurt.  “He speaks in schools now about safe driving and works full time, loves masonry.” She laughed a little: “He is now my rock!”

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