Monday, November 06, 2006

Just Say "No"

If you remember being a teenager, which you probably do, then you’ll remember how many things you tried to pull off without being caught by your parents or – heaven forbid – the police. These things included, but were not limited to, smoking, drinking, drugging and canoodling with the opposite sex.

It has been said that our generation of parents have tried to be more friend than foe with our children. Guilty as charged on some accounts. My head was more in the sand that out with my two older ones, but only up to a point. Around the time that Kenny turned 14 I suddenly chucked friendly mode for Gestapo.

If he would announce his intentions to go to a party, or even just that he wanted to go to a friend’s house after school, I would call the home of his proposed appointment to make sure an adult would be present. This would cause major embarrassment and much sulking on his part. But I’m blonde, not stupid. I remember keenly what I was doing at that age; hanging out in a parentless dwelling was Nirvana. I wouldn’t have the sins of the mother (or father or step-father for that matter) visited on the son.

This is not to mean that he wasn’t successful on occasion. If one wants what one wants they’ll get it somehow. But I tried my best, even through his senior year at New Canaan High, to remind him about rules, responsibility and the rage of a mother nearly-fooled.

I now have to be Rambo-mom to Janet. Technically, eighth grade was a very long time ago for me, and yet, having a 13-year-old daughter keeps it quite green. She hosted a party recently and I probably made my presence known to her guests more than I should have, but as I said, she keeps my memory sharp. She vacillates between being Teen Wolf and Teen Angel, so when I announce that I will be calling so-and-so’s parents to make sure they’ll be home for whatever party or small get-together she wants to attend, the Angel pretty quickly grows fangs. Good thing I’m not afraid of the big, bad wolf.

Of course there will be a time or times when even the good kid is in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that they will inevitably make the off-center decision. As we have done as parents since toddlerhood, we can assure them that we will be there should they fall, even if a consequence needs to be handed down.

We have to learn to say “no” early on. “No” to the trip to the toy store; to the third play date of the week; to the ice cream; to the extra half hour before bed. Then it’s “no” to the second sleep-over of the weekend, or wandering aimlessly around downtown; to constant IM-ing; or chauffeuring to and from movies in Norwalk or Wilton every weekend. And “no” to un-chaperoned gatherings at other person’s homes.

New Canaan CARES addressed this issue for middle school parents yesterday – “Navigating the Teen Party Scene.” For first-time parents of teens, navigating the whole stretch of teenage years can be fraught with fog and stormy seas. Yet having made the treacherous journey twice already, I can report that eventually the water calms and the sun does come out again.

But just for the record-- and previous teen parenting experience aside -- I am so not psyched about doing it all again, two more times. There’s not enough grey hair-ridding coloring in the world!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Roots, Wings and Other Things

The phrase, “there are two things we must give our children, roots and wings,” has been dancing around in my head lately. As I hit the streets and the Internet in search of the perfect holiday gifts for my four kids, I ponder if I have given enough roots and wings; something money can’t buy and Santa can’t deliver.

Sometimes guilt overwhelms me when I think about my older two, Blake (21) and Kenny (19). I divorced their father when they were just ages two and nearly four. For five years I struggled and survived as a single parent; we were fairly rootless for a while. But when I remarried 12 years ago I, along with Jon, my husband, was able to start providing them with family traditions. As a real hands-on stepfather, Jon instilled in them a sense of responsibility as well as a living illustration of setting and attaining goals. I in turn was able to involve them in the creative process associated with my then-business (County Kids magazine) and of the joy and hard work involved in seeing a dream through to fruition.

The actual physical roots my children had were first planted in Weston, the town of my girlhood; we also lived in the same house in which I had grown. But five years ago, knowing instinctively that it was time for me to “graduate” from Weston, we pulled up roots and settled here in New Canaan. Now firmly planted, they – and we – are thriving in our new environment. Blake and Kenny will always have a pull towards Weston, as will I, and it is another bond the three of us share.

Giving our children wings is a more emotionally difficult task. Do we push them out of the nest or nudge them gently? I believe each child is unique and the method for teaching them about freedom can vary. Partly, we teach by example, by flying solo with determination or by breaking away with hesitation i.e. not taking many trips without them. Neither way is the better way, but each way helps them develop the wings they will need. Wings that invariably appear to flap when we are least prepared.

When Blake began talking about a career in the military during his sophomore year in high school the flutters caught me unawares. And on that morning in July of 2001 when the doorbell rang at 4 a.m. and his Marine recruiter arrived to drive him to boot camp, my heart couldn’t have been fuller or more broken. Blake was ready to soar and I let go, but not without holding on to a couple more feathers.

Kenny has since grown strong and creative wings after a few false starts and crash landings. Although Janet and Jack are still here, continuing to grow their roots and wings, I miss my older birds and have been adjusting slowly but surely to my half-empty nest.

Traditions, family in-jokes and certain “formats” during the holidays remind our family of its roots. But the moment I cherish most in this world – where roots and wings come together for this mommy – is on Christmas morning.

It has been a tradition for many years now that on December 25th whichever child wakes up first must come to our room and tell us that he/she thinks or knows (by peeking) that Santa has come. That child then gently wakes up the other three and then all four of them pile into our bed for at least another half an hour of “sleep.” Christmas of ’02 is the last time all four children were home, as Blake was in Japan last year. That morning is etched in my mind and in my heart. There we were, from then three foot tall Jack to 6’2” Blake, all snuggled together in the silent still of the morning, anticipatory and sleepy, giggling and lovingly making fun of one another; my winged and my still wingless birds safe in my embrace if for but a temporary slice of time.

I envision this tradition in years to come, with grandchildren and daughters and sons in law, all piled onto our bed in the wee hours of Christmas morn. Roots going back deeply and feathers floating lightly above the bed. It is my favorite Christmas gift. It is simple and it is priceless.

Happy holidays from our family to yours!

Coaching or Encroaching?

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” famed professional football coach Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying. Maybe that sentiment is true at the professional level, or even high school or college. But at the elementary and middle school level, winning shouldn’t be the only thing. And most of the volunteer coaches in town seem to understand that.
Sports coaches should assist athletes in developing to their full potential and are there to provide encouragement. According to a web site on sports coaches, “the role of the coach is to create the right conditions for learning to happen and to find ways of motivating the athletes. Most athletes are highly motivated and therefore the task is to maintain that motivation and to generate excitement and enthusiasm.”
From what I understand -- as a former cheerleading coach at the Pop Warner football level as well as at high school, and as the wife of a past volunteer coach-- the role of the coach of young children and adolescents is to introduce them to and instruct them in the particular sport at hand. Allowing them to play or try-out different positions in the hope of finding their strengths is key. And encouraging them to play their best with an eye on the prize (winning) is also valuable.
But what happens to the 8, 9, 10-year-old child who shows up at every practice, sits through games without getting much out of it (i.e. playing time) and is not receiving the return on their efforts? Although as adults we know that self-worth comes from within, as children we seek it initially from outside, grown-up sources.
Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL football star, and the subject of the book, “Season of Life,” and referred to "The Most Important Coach in America" is described in one passage of the book as saying to a team he was coaching before a game:

"What is our job as coaches?" he asked. "To love us," the boys yelled back in unison. "What is your job?" Joe shot back. "To love each other," the boys responded.

Mr. Ehrmann spoke last night at New Canaan High School during a program sponsored in part by New Canaan CARES. On November 7th, Mr. Ehrmann will return to speak with all coaches and physical education teachers during their in service day. His message is significant, especially to volunteer parent coaches.

Within the past year, Jack -- who eats, sleeps and breathes sports -- has had the good fortune to be coached by several New Canaan fathers (thank you Doug Hart, Joe Radecki, Tom Sands, Bruce Wilson and Rick Condon) who not only recognized his athletic ability, but sought to help him hone it. Each young player was taught his worth, no matter what the level of his athletic ability. Doug Hart and Tom Sands notably had the ability to turn individual baseball and football players into a team – a team whose main priority was having fun, win or lose.

“Hold your heads up high,” exclaimed Tom Sands to his young charges after a baseball loss. “You were great out there; be proud. You’re the ‘A- Train’ (a team nickname)!” The boys were only momentarily discouraged by the loss, and although they would go on to lose a few more games, they also wound up in the finals of the 10-year-old championship. Because they were good baseball players? Absolutely. Because they had fun playing the game? You bet. And, equally as vital, they knew they were cared about.

Being relegated to the sidelines -- first in sport -- may translate into sitting things out, sidelining oneself, sooner or later, in life. Encroaching upon the growing child’s sense of worth isn’t the coach’s job. For a kid, discovering and feeling that some adult other than their mom or dad finds them essential on the field or on the court of play is priceless. Right now our children’s self-esteem and their self-assurance are being built; it shouldn’t be torn down. That strategy works fine at military boot camp, but these are just kids; pre-teens.

The voluntary coach needs to understand how critical they are to the development of every kid. It is a great act of trust for parents to turn their child over to these coaches, and the quid pro quo is that the coach will approach their role with objectivity, compassion and an eye toward developing a sense of community and worth among every child.

Now that’s a winning season.