Thursday, March 3, 2016

Parenting Pre-Teens: I've got an eye-roller over here.


This post originated in the Bangor Metro, March 2016

Dear parents of pre-teen kids, can we talk? 

Have you noticed as our kids turn the corner from kid toward teenager that our job description has changed pretty dramatically?


My daughter is now 11 and has grown up so much in the last year. The tricky part of parenting her seems to be that I am supposed to simultaneously acknowledge how capable and independent she is while not forgetting that she still needs me. Some days I feel like we are walking such a fine line along this new boundary that one tiny step in the wrong direction, and suddenly she is running upstairs to her room, and I am eating Nutella straight out of the jar.

On any given day, it’s just not as easy to know whether I’m being a good mom to her. Even though I swore it was challenging at the time (the sleep deprivation!), the baby and toddler stages were a breeze in comparison. Am I right? As long as I fed her, smiled at her, got her to take a good nap, rocked her and patted her little diapered butt before bed, I felt like the champion of all the mothers. The parenting books I had dog-eared on my bedside table always told it to me straight. 
“At 18 months old, your baby should be able to: say several single words, shake her head no, point to one body part, drink from a cup and eat with a spoon.”
I always passed these little tests, giving me the false impression that I had this parenting thing figured out.

Now the answers to all of my parenting questions are “maybe” or “it depends” or “not a clue.” Should I follow her up to her room when she retreats there? Should she have an Instagram account because most of her friends do? Is it unforgivable that I nag her about deodorant and hair brushing? How candidly should I answer her questions about sex? Should I intervene when she thinks a teacher is being unfair, or let her sort it out? Can I educate her about food and exercise needs without giving her a body-image complex? Some days she wants help, some days she doesn’t, sometimes I embarrass her when my intentions are only to help.

Last week, she was upset about something, and we were lying on her bed. After some major eye rolling and frustration, made worse by my assumption she was just being “moody,” she said: “I just feel like I’m trying so hard to be a grown up but I still feel like a little kid,” I thought, well, there it is. My daughter actually has a pretty special knack for articulating how she feels, and I should have just asked her. I should have absolutely known that this push-and-pull between little kid and grown up  is at the forefront of every moment for her.

I’m starting to figure out that as she gets older, I don’t need the parenting books anymore. I have this tremendous resource right in front of me. Lying on her bed that night, I vowed to accept that I may not always know what she needs, but most of the time, she knows. And even when she doesn’t know, she needs me only to be patient, to listen, and to offer love, love, and more love.

My job now is to keep the lines of communication open. I need her to keep telling me what Susie said at school, and how she isn’t sure Jane is a good friend anymore, what she is worried about, and what she’s looking forward to. It’s true that sometimes she wants to be alone in her room, but other times she wants to hang out and be silly, and still other times she wants a heart-to-heart. I need to keep asking good questions, to be quiet and listen, to let some things go, to apologize when I get it wrong, and most importantly, to just be there for her.

Our growing kids are working especially hard to make sense of the world and all of these new feelings, bigger responsibilities, changing bodies, and complications with friendships that had previously been easy. The last thing they need is a parent who refuses to see them as the adults they are becoming.

Maybe parenting pre-teens and teens is challenging because we are clinging to the vestiges of being the one who had all the answers, who passed all the tests. It’s humbling to have your kid, who needed you for every single thing, suddenly morph into this smart and opinionated person who needs you less, or at least differently.

Just remind yourselves, and remind me when you see me in the corner with a jar of Nutella, that kids who want to establish independence, to do things their own way, are proof that we are, as a matter of fact, passing the test.