Monthly Archives: October 2013

High School: A Snapshot in Time

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Choosing a school portrait package has to be one of the most complex tasks required of parents.

Back when I was a kid, we were given about three packages to choose from.  If you were unhappy with your smile or the lighting in your finished photo, you signed up for a retake.  Recently, I got to choose from 48 different packages, each slightly different (organized using a system I have yet to figure out).

It’s not just sizes and quantities of photos that requires analysis.   Other choices include the closeness of the pose, the background color, and whether or not you want a name and year printed on it.   And for an extra $10.00, you can get basic retouching which removes blemishes.    I want to meet the parents who choose premium retouching for an extra $20.  This option removes blemishes, whitens teeth, evens skin tone, removes scars, and removes fly away hair.   Seriously?

Sometimes I wish we could return to the days of fewer options, like when I was a kid.  You may not have loved your school photo at the time but you could look back at it years later and realize it was just a snapshot in time.  I still laugh at my own school portraits, like the one from 1977, where I thought my long hair parted down the middle resembled Marsha Brady.  (It didn’t).   Or my freshman year photo with braces and acne.  Poor me.

Options are a good thing, in theory.  Picky eaters, for example, fare better at restaurants that have a wide variety of options on their menus.  Cable TV offers movies and shows to please anyone’s tastes.

And teens are very lucky today, with so many options at high school.  There are sports teams and clubs for nearly any activity a student could desire.  If a club doesn’t exist at the local high school, a student can create one.  Electives are plentiful and have the potential of opening kids’ eyes to future careers.

Options are also creating super achievers.   Students who are willing to spend extra time and money can improve just about any skills they want.  For example, they can pay an hourly rate for private music lessons  at the high school.  This increases their chances of being accepted into an honors level class.  They can pay to play on a private club sports team which promises to increase skills and competition levels. SAT scores are likely to increase if students are willing to pay a fee to be tutored in how to take this exam.

When I was in high school, if you had decent grades and had one or two extra-curricular activities you were considered “well-rounded.”  I fell into that category because I was a good (although not exceptional) student,  played soccer and played in the high school band.  I was a mediocre soccer player at best and a decent clarinetist who never considered seeking private lessons.  By today’s standards, I would be a very unremarkable high school graduate. Yet, I was accepted into decent colleges which are now fairly selective.

Today, it’s normal be an exceptional student (notice I didn’t say good) as well as a highly skilled athlete and perhaps great in even another area:  music, art, public speaking, government, etc.  Being good suddenly doesn’t seem good enough.   As my daughter fills out her college applications, she wonders if she will fare well in admissions counselors’ eyes.  After all, In high school she’s been good, but not exceptional.

Let me explain good.  My daughter has taken a mixture of college prep classes and more challenging, honors level classes.  She has been cut from a volleyball team (because freshmen players who show potential trump junior players  who are good but not exceptional). She will (hopefully) play a fourth year of high school lacrosse.  She has a beautiful singing voice (much to our surprise and delight) and has developed confidence as an onstage performer in various singing groups and in drama club.  She holds a part-time job and volunteers in various activities at our church.  She has shown more courage and resilience in her four high school years than I ever have in my life.

What I try to remind myself (and my daughter) is that the world needs people with all sorts of skill sets.  Some people write well.  Others are math geniuses.  Some are great listeners.  Still others  explain things well.  Some entertain well or decorate well or argue a point well.  Many high school students don’t have a clue what they do well.  Yes, there is a large number of students who excel these days, but there are many who, for various reasons, don’t have it all figured out.  They eventually will, with some experimentation and perseverance.

Everyone has the opportunity to do well in life. Everyone has the ability to change their path in life, too, if their choices don’t align with their happiness.  Just as acne goes away and braces come off, different (and often  better) opportunities present themselves,  I say embrace each and every stage, blemishes and all.   Each stage is an opportunity to learn and change and grow.

THIS TOO SHALL PASS

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Ahhh…. sleepovers.  What’s not to like about a sleepover for a 12 year-old girl?  There’s junk food, hair braiding, movie viewing, story-telling, and even mattress-surfing (down a carpeted staircase).

But all good things must come to an end.  And even if you’ve been given plenty of notice via your mother’s text, to be dressed and ready by 10:45 a.m. for 11:00 Mass, well…. Things are bound to get ugly.

I consider myself very lucky.  I have two teenagers and a ‘tween.  That’s lucky?  Yes.  I’m lucky because I have already witnessed the ups and downs of my two oldest children navigating their way through middle school. These are a couple of very awkward, emotional years when ‘tweens are young children one day and sassy teenagers the next.  When times get rough – like getting picked up from a really fun sleepover — to go to church – I know that she will survive despite her foul mood, as will I.

But there was a time, not that many years ago, when eye rolling and stubborn resistance to my parental demands would have nearly sent me over the edge.  I didn’t fully believe, at that time, that these were normal parts of adolescence.  Today, when one of my children appears to be digging in her heels, I know to smile, take a deep breath, and repeat in my head, This too shall pass.   

My ‘tween’s church-ready outfit of wrinkled t-shirt, cotton short-shorts with bare legs and UGGs made me smile since I knew this was clearly a mild act of rebellion.  Thankfully her bag contained yoga pants and a clean top which she promised would be on by the time we reached the church.  But as I now know from experience, situations can turn on a dime for a middle schooler lacking sleep.  Getting one of the boots back on became a monumental challenge, followed by tears and a refusal to go into the church crying.  This too shall pass.

It’s helpful to remind oneself that God accepts everyone into his house of worship, regardless of what they are wearing, if they are late or if there are traces of a recent meltdown in the form of red, tear-streaked cheeks. It’s helpful to remind oneself of God’s unconditional love when your family is late to church and is being ushered down to the only available seats, in the second row from the priest.

If I were another parishioner watching our arrival, I would have taken pity.  We are just a normal family, trying our best.  For one hour each week, we can join others to be reminded that we are all human, making human mistakes each and every day.  And each day we are given the opportunity to try again to be our best.

“Father Mark is staring at me,” whispered my youngest.  “Do you think he’ll point me out?”  Anyone who knows me well knows that I am prone to very untimely nervous laughter.  This was one of those times.  I could just imagine the scene.  Young Lady, what could possibly be bothering you so much today?  Our beloved Pastor really is the type who might try to cheer her up and get a chuckle from the parishioners, and if he did, I would never hear the end of it.

He did not point her out, thank God, and as the Mass continued with its familiar, soothing music, prayers and sense of community, I could sense the release of tension from my family, especially from my 12 year old.  She even whispered, “I’m sorry,” which is what she always does once she snaps out of these occasional funks.  I remember this well from my other kids.  It’s almost as if they can’t help feeling out-of-sorts and miserable for short spurts of time at this age.   This is a normal part of being an adolescent.

Regardless of what it is that is bothering them– lack of sleep, overwhelming workloads, friendship troubles, self-esteem issues, or even nothing in particular – ‘tweens (and teens) are oftentimes like very young children, needing more than anything to be reassured that all will be okay.  My daughter got that reassurance at Mass, surrounded by her family and others who had come to focus on something greater than themselves for an hour —  and to be reminded that despite life’s challenges, big or small, everything will be okay.

Finish That Donut!

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They say you are what you eat.  If that’s the case, my family is Cheez-Its, pretzels and ice cream.  As hard as I try, my crusade to win over my family to eat wholesome, Dr. Oz-type food is falling on deaf ears.  Still, I refuse to give up.

I know there are mothers everywhere who food shop regularly and continue to hear their kids complain, “There’s no food in this house!”  For my kids, it’s not that there isn’t any food in the house. It’s just that they’ve run out of their Cheez-Its, pretzels, and ice cream. These food choices are “okay” nutritionally — which is why my husband continues to purchase them in bulk when I’m not looking — but when they’re in the house, my kids fail to see the healthier choices available to them, like yogurt, almonds, apples, oranges, and even crackers and cheese.

As long as the brightly packaged snacks find their way into our cabinets, my kids will never believe that the majority of the healthier food choices taste good and give them more energy and for longer stretches of time.

Part of the problem is that my husband “enables” the kids to eat the less healthy stuff, by slipping it into the shopping cart when I’m not looking or making a separate trip to the store to stock up on it.  Somehow, this stuff is in the cabinets and the refrigerator. “It’s not like we’re eating Twinkies and Ring Dings,” is his justification for the Cheez-Its and half gallons of ice cream.  He has a point, I suppose.

He and I were raised in families that didn’t have a lot of extra money to splurge on Doritos, Twinkies, Oreos and other desirable treats.  We had junk food envy when we saw the snacks in other kids’ lunch boxes.  Also, we seldom ate out at restaurants, so for him, all these things are desirable.  We still laugh about taking our kids to Dunkin’ Donuts where my husband shocked even himself by exclaiming “Finish that donut!” to one of our kids.  Is there any health benefit to a donut that would constitute not wasting even a single bite?

I outgrew my junk food envy, but my hubby did not and now he feels entitled to having it.  And he is right that Cheez-Its aren’t all that bad for you.  Cheez-Its “contain 100% real cheese”, according to the claim on the box.  (Devil Dogs probably don’t have even a marginal amount of any food group).   Still, most of us know by now that the closer a food is to its original form the healthier it is for you.   A whole apple straight from the tree is better than a slice of apple pie, which is better than Apple Jacks cereal. You get the point.  Cheez-Its aren’t bad, but I feel that we can do better.

Why can’t my family see my point of view that if we were to stock our cabinets and refrigerator with Dr. Oz-type foods** and eat them when we need a snack or a good meal, we would probably all feel fantastic and less hungry because we’d be eating well?  We probably wouldn’t need to reach for Cheez-Its before dinner because we’d still be energized by apple slices, oatmeal cookies or Greek yogurt to name a few good choices.

Let me explain, lest you think I am a hopeless bore and need to get a real problem.  It took me years to realize that eating a big plate of pancakes and syrup without any source of protein on the plate was the reason why I was famished and sometimes even faint, just an hour after eating.  Likewise, it’s the reason I would get that same weak feeling after finishing a bag full of penny candy at the movie theater.  Similarly, McDonald’s and Taco Bell taste great once in a while, but not regularly.  They shouldn’t be a regular part of our diets, yet they always seem to be there, tempting us.

Little understandings such as these are the reason why I repeatedly encourage my kids to think carefully about what they’re putting in their mouths.  Why not eat the food that makes them feel best?  If I can influence their eating choices now, maybe they will eventually eat well when they’re  on their own, like when they’re away at college.  After all, we haven’t deprived them. We’ve given them the junk food experience, more or less… We just haven’t let it get out of control, thus far.   And we have had our share of battles and survived.

My oldest child has no appetite when she wakes up, which is not uncommon.  Although she knows that breakfast is really important, 6:45 a.m. is too early for her to stomach eggs and toast.  Thankfully, she will finally now eat a Zone nutritional bar or a few apple slices with peanut butter for breakfast.  It took years of coaxing, on my part, to get her to eat anything.  She is finally making the connection that it’s essential to eat in order to feel alert enough to do her best.  There is hope.

Thankfully, we are a family that is able to sit down together for dinner, if only a few evenings each week.  What’s great about this, in addition to its bonding benefits, is that I still have some control over what my children are eating.  (I just found out my daughter ate chickwiches — fried chicken patty sandwiches — every day for the two years she was in middle school).   I’d like to think this was just a stage and that she now eats a variety of food at the cafeteria.  My kids will eat pretty much anything I put in front of them.  Sometimes they love it, but at the very least, they force a polite smile.  There is hope.

Eventually fussy eaters mature and try foods they previously wouldn’t.  You don’t see many adults ordering grilled cheese sandwiches or chicken fingers and fries at fancy restaurants.  We reached a milestone recently in our house.  I told my kids I was making baked macaroni and cheese for dinner and they were unanimously happy.  Say what?  Kraft Macaroni & Cheese used to be the preferred choice and they would let me know it,  much to my annoyance.  We’re making progress.   (Ha ha, Kraft!)

Now if I can get the whole family to enjoy fish we’ll be in really good shape.

** Many people are convinced that the foods Dr. Oz designates as healthy are only the most expensive, exotic types.  He does swear by the benefits of some pricier ingredients, but mostly recommends everyday foods.  Here is a very reasonable list of foods that he suggests we eat, if you are curious:

COOL TO BE KIND

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I used to avoid the self-checkout line at Stop & Shop the way some people avoid pumping their own gas.  Sometimes it’s just easier to have a human being help you do something rather than a machine.  But recently I decided I would avoid a long line by using the self-checkout option to scan my two items.  One of my items was a gift card and the instant I swiped it I remembered it needed to be activated (by a human being).

Swiping the gift card signaled a young employee who made her way over to me, rolling her eyes as if she were completely annoyed.  “You can’t go through this line with a gift card,” she said in a monotone voice, pressing some buttons to void my purchase.  I made a split second decision to not let her rudeness affect me.  “Lesson learned,” I said to her, smiling, and I looked for a line with a cashier.

There is a lesson here and it is not about gift cards needing to be activated by humans. Rather, it is this:  We each are responsible for being on our best behavior, even when we feel tired, stressed, unmotivated or rattled by someone else’s behavior because good behavior stops rude behavior in its tracks.  I have no idea why this woman needed to roll her eyes at me prior to fixing my simple mistake, but maybe the kindness I showed her is precisely what she needed at that moment. I needed to let it go, too, lest it ruin my day.

A word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul.”  — St. Therese de Lisieux

I want my teenagers to understand that their words and actions can positively or negatively affect those around them.  They need to think before they act or speak.  This is not easy for anyone, let alone teenagers.  Drama and raging hormones are a natural part of teens’ lives. If they could just make that split second decision to be kind, even in uncomfortable situations, everyone would benefit.  This is not equivalent to the “kill ‘em with kindness” approach in which an overboard dose of kindness is used to illustrate another person’s lack of it.  Kindness could also come in the form of encouraging words or a sincere compliment.

It’s no secret that teenagers value edgy, witty, sarcastic types.  For better or for worse, these are the leaders in the teenage world and often in the adult world, too.  This is fine, in my opinion, as long as these same people and a boatload of others are also kind and compassionate.  The world needs more of these types and we need to recognize that being kind is cool.  It’s mutually beneficial to be kind – feeling good to be the giver and to be the receiver of kindness.

Speaking of kindness…..  It feels good to hear kind words about your children.  Parenting is not easy.  You often question every move you make, wondering if you’re giving your children what they need in terms of advice, discipline, love and independence.  You try to lead by example but often make your own mistakes.  Our kids are not with us 24/7 so we don’t always see how they act or react in different situations. All we can do is try to lead by example and hope they are kind and compassionate to others.

Two Teens, Two Dads, and Six Degrees of Separation

My friend Christine told me a story that illustrates how kind teens can be when no one is watching.  Christine learned that a co-worker’s autistic son would be heading to a camp for high school runners this past summer.  His parents were both thrilled and anxious about the prospect of sending him away to enjoy something he discovered he loved to do.  He had never spent time away from home, let alone with teenagers who may not understand or accept his quirky yet harmless behaviors.

Later in the summer, Christine was chatting with a high school friend who shared that his teenage daughter had spent time at a running camp.  By coincidence, the two teenagers, who lived in different parts of Massachusetts, had attended the same running camp that summer.  When her co-worker brought his autistic son to work one day, Christine asked Bobby about camp.

“I know there were tons of kids, but did you ever meet a girl named Taylor at your camp?  Her dad is a friend of mine and he said she went to that camp and it might have been during the same session.”  To Christine’s delight, Bobby stopped whatever he was doing, looked up from his computer and turned to her, eyes wide and full of interest.   He went on to say “I know Taylor!  She was nice to me.  And then her friends were. We had a great time together.”

How fortunate that Christine was privy to news about both teens attending this camp and that she could piece together the essence of Taylor from the positive impression she had made on her co-worker’s son.   It thrilled Bobby’s dad to hear his son loved the camp and had made friends, but more importantly, he was hopeful now that this could be the beginning of many other new adventures for Bobby.

Likewise, it  made Taylor’s dad feel good when he heard of the impact his daughter had made on a kid who just wasn’t like everyone else, and who sometimes struggled in social situations.   She made him feel included and convinced others that it was okay to be his friend.

Perhaps you’re skeptical that a teen could be so genuinely kind to another teen who is a little bit different from others.   Ordinarily I would share your skepticism except I know Taylor fairly well and it doesn’t surprise me one bit that she is the kind of person who would extend kindness to a stranger. And I am certain that there are many other wicked good teens out there who we may not hear about, who would show that same kindness as well.