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For the past few weeks, my 16-year-old son has been away in the Adirondacks, working at a family-run lodge on a pristine lake ringed with tall trees and a few campsites. With the other high school and college kids who make up the staff, he helps serve and clear meals, which are eaten family style in an open-air building with wooden canoes hung from the rafters. He splits wood, mows grass, strips beds. He drives a little Deere tractor to take the guests’ luggage to and from their cabins, which are lit only by Coleman lanterns. In his free time, he can go hiking, kayaking or sailing, or stretch out on a couch on the lodge porch to read a book or sleep. What makes it really unique, though, is that he is completely unplugged. There is no cell service and no wi-fi. This means my son not only is having a vacation from the constant lure of Facebook and texting, but is having what I have come to recognize must be a welcome respite from me.

Last spring I spent eight days in Kenya on a business trip. With the time difference and the difficulty of phoning home, communication with my husband and sons was limited to a few check-ins by email. A day or two after I got back, I found myself in the familiar position of standing in the doorway to the den, grilling my son about the status of his homework and suggesting that studying was perhaps a better use of his time than playing League of Legends. He sighed, turned to me and said, “Do you know that the week you were away was the least stressful week I’ve had in months?” Continue Reading »

Many decades ago, when I was a girl who didn’t like being bothered to do anything that would cut into my daydreaming and reading time, my mother embarked on a crafts project. She designed and embroidered two pillows for me. The first depicted colorful little snails and the curving words, “Don’t Rush Me.” The second was adorned with tiny insects with the heading “Don’t Bug Me.” Why did my mother take the time to stitch these charming little pillows? Let’s just say I drove her to it.

I’ve been thinking about those pillows lately as my teenaged sons greet my requests to do, well, anything, with the same sort of exasperated annoyance I once apparently perfected. Those pillows, still nestled in a box somewhere in my mother’s attic, remind me that I once was more like my boys are now than I usually admit. When I ask for the umpteenth time that they don’t walk into the house in their mud-caked baseball cleats or remind them to put their dirty clothes into the hamper, I certainly don’t find myself thinking “gee, like mother, like sons!”

But those pillows are proof that I was not always a grown up, and that the journey from being a child who thinks parents are uptight and obsessive about such absurdities as household chores to becoming an adult who actually hangs up a wet bath towel without being told to do so is a very long one. Continue Reading »

With the holidays upon us, I would like to share, from my own recent experience, the three levels of giving presents to teenagers.

1. There are gifts that your child is thrilled to receive, but you are less than overjoyed to give:

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Enough said.

2. There are gifts you feel wonderful about giving, but on the receiving end, your son…well, not so much:

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This one, by the way, was given two years ago and has yet to come out of the box. My son apparently loves pasta a lot, but not so much as to motivate him to make his own.

3. Finally, there is that sweet spot of gift-giving, the present that you love to give and your teenager loves too.  This next gift works for me for the obvious reasons — it’s not electronic, ridiculously inexpensive, charmingly old-fashioned and won’t be broken, lost or forgotten in a flash. My 14-year-old loves it because it’s fun and challenging and absurdly satisfying. Here are the basics, which you might even already have lying around the house and which you can get for about $2 if you don’t:

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I’m not sure if this has a name, but together these parts add up to an ingenious sum: a ridiculously entertaining game that you can set up anywhere, inside or outside. I got the idea from my nephew, who got the idea from his summer camp, where they know more than a thing or two about what boys find entertaining.

You screw the hook into the ceiling, tie a string to it and tie the metal loop at the end. Then you measure enough string to reach the nail that you have hammered into the wall somewhere across the room. (I guess if you do it outside you hang it from the branch of a tree and put the nail in the trunk.) The object of the game is to swing the string in a circle and try to catch the loop on the nail, like this:

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I’m confident that this one is going to outlive the shelf life of the latest video game, particularly as it’s apparently the logical thing to occupy yourself with when you’re supposed to be doing homework. You may want to learn from my experience and encourage your son to set this one up somewhere other than within reach of his desk.

Like many women with a less than cordial relationship with her bathroom scale, I’m aware that I have a natural weight, the number my body veers toward when I forget I am on a diet. And now, after 14+ years of parenting, I’ve come to believe that I also have a natural inner parent, the one who I always seem to resort to being, despite my attempts to heed the advice of parenting books and articles, and other apparently “better” parents.

This occurred to me during the past week as I’ve pondered how to motivate my ninth-grade son to be less of what his English teacher calls “a minimalist” and what I call a plain, old under-achiever. With report cards issued and parent-teacher conferences underway, I’ve heard some parents talk about how they react to grades they believe are too low (which is often different from a universally acknowledged “bad” grade).  There are phones and laptops taken away, video game privileges revoked, and even grounding.

I have considered such steps, too, but ultimately I hesitate – and not only because I’m not sure those methods work. I hesitate because after all these years, I’m getting to know myself as a parent. While I might look at other (stricter) parents with envy, thinking that they have the answers to automatically get their wayward teens in line, I know that I can only parent….as I parent.  Which is to say that if were graded on “consistently enforcing rules,” I would get a B-minus, at best. On punishing, I’d probably do even worse. Continue Reading »

Today is the 20th anniversary of The Moscow Times, an independent, English-language newspaper published in Russia. If you don’t know me (and even if you do), you may wonder how this occasion has anything to do with raising teenaged boys, the subject of this blog. But my involvement with The Moscow Times has everything to do with how I want my boys to approach life. I want them to know that when adventure comes knocking, the most sensible thing to do may be to quit a perfectly good job.

In late 1990, I was working as a newspaper reporter in Florida, living a spunky Brenda Starr kind of life, tooling around in my light-blue Chevy Nova (with tape deck!), living in an apartment nearly as small as my car, and learning the ropes of journalism while covering everything from night cops, to city politics to suburban alligator trappers.

But then the Soviet Union started to collapse and the appeal of being a reporter in Florida began to pale in comparison to the thought of working as a journalist in Russia. It wasn’t as crazy as it sounds; I had a degree in Russian Studies and had spent a summer in Moscow during college. I heard about a new English-language magazine being published by a Dutch journalist and with the kind of 20-something persistence that is but a faint memory today, I talked myself into an internship and a temporary place to stay.

And then I quit a perfectly good job in Florida and moved to Moscow. Continue Reading »

I was busted yesterday. By my 14-year-old son. I didn’t mean to snoop – I’d already vowed publicly that I would not. But when I went into my son’s room to turn the music off on his laptop and saw his Facebook page open…well, my curiosity trumped my better instincts. My trespassing wasn’t that egregious — a quick click on two messages that were mundane enough to prompt me to stop my snooping and leave the room.

But what was really embarrassing was that a little while later, when my son asked who’d been looking at two of his Facebook messages (I still can’t figure out how he knew), before I could think about it, I was lying.

“Not me,” I said, busying myself with some suddenly urgent laundry folding. “I went on your laptop to turn off the music, but that’s it.”

My husband said that he hadn’t looked at the computer, and I knew my son believed him; though he loves his children dearly, my husband is just genuinely not nosy or intrusive about their social lives.

While hiding in the laundry room, I realized what a fool and hypocrite I was being. I am trying to raise my boys to respect people’s privacy and always tell the truth. And here I was snooping and lying. I went upstairs and confessed and apologized. My son, rushing out to a baseball game, just shook his head at me. He didn’t say what a lot of parents I know have said when their teenagers have lied about bad behavior, which is that they were less upset about the naughty behavior than by the fact that their children had lied. My son didn’t say it because he probably didn’t care that I’d lied; he was just really mad that I had looked at his messages (even though he is told time and time again that nothing on Facebook is ever really private).

But maybe he didn’t say anything about my initial dishonesty because he knows what I hadn’t realized until that moment — that lying to save your ass can come so quickly that you don’t even think about it. And while it is definitely better to have the immediate instinct toward honesty, what matters in the end may be what you do in the end. I’m sure there will come a time before my boys graduate high school when they lie to me about something they did. I hope I can remember that some essentially honest, good people, some whom I may be intimately acquainted with, have been known to lie to save themselves. It may not be admirable, but it’s human.

The object of my son’s desire was tall, thin, sleek, robed in black and nothing if not dangerous. “It’s so sexy,” he said.

This was no 9th grade femme fatale he was describing. It was his new airsoft gun. A sniper.

As I watched my 14-year-old son gazing at his beloved, I flashed back to the day when he was three and pretending to be an armed robber. Like any well-intentioned, politically-correct and completely naive young mother, I said, “no, sweetie, we don’t play with guns. Guns hurt people.” My son stopped, looked at me with withering condescension and said “Mommy, it’s pretend.”

He had a point, and one that was hard to argue with. I decided to give his imagination free reign. My hunch was confirmed by a book I reviewed that argued that playing cops and robbers, and even violent video games, allows children to safely explore frightening emotions. I would not put a damper on my son’s pretend play just because I didn’t like the content. Besides, I’d heard enough about boys working around bans on toy weapons to think it was a losing battle; my favorite was the one about a toddler in a Jewish pre-school who was so determined to arm himself that he chewed his matzoh into the shape of a pistol.

Having surrendered in the weapon war, I then had the pleasure of watching my boys move from pretend guns to light sabers, pirate swords, water pistols, nerf guns, archery and riflery at camp, and paintball, a progression culminating in my first born using his bar mitzvah money (!) to buy an airsoft gun and a bucket of ammunition. Continue Reading »

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