Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Have You Written a Letter Lately?

Does your child know how to send a letter? In the electronic age in which we live, I would imagine that many of them have never done so. One might even confront a high school graduate who does not know how to address an envelope. I read an article which stated that in Great Britain, the Royal Mail sends almost 70,000 items daily to the National Returns Center to try to figure out the intended recipient of the letter, as they are addressed incorrectly.

Is there a value in letter writing? I recently had the discussion with someone as to whether writing a hand-written thank you note is old-fashioned. E-mail, texting etc. are “here today and gone tomorrow” as they are mostly deleted. Historians even wonder how historical record will change as we no longer have insight to characters and events based on letters written. One writer, Bruno Somerset, wrote, “The danger is that we will become the first generation in history with no written record of ourselves. If George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Ernest Hemingway had only used e-mail, would we have the same record of them that we possess through their letters and journals today? If Jefferson had sent text messages to Adams, think what would have been lost to history.”

I don’t want to sound outdated, but there is some value in letter-writing. How about writing a letter to your child? Recently I read a blog suggesting that would be a cherished holiday gift. In this letter we can tell our children how we feel about them and what about them makes us proud. We assume they know all this already- but once they see it in black and white, it is more impactful. These letters will be saved and reread as they grow older. And, how about a quick note in a lunchbox? “Good luck on your English test. I know you worked hard and I’m proud.” They may quickly hide it so their friends won’t see, but it is often appreciated.

Recently, I came across a book called Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self. In this book, 75 celebrities wrote what they would say if they came face to face with themselves at age 16. J.K. Rowling who wrote the introduction to the book and was a contributor said, “’Be yourself. Be easier on yourself. Become yourself, as fully as possible.’ Attempting to isolate those life lessons I could pass back to the girl I used to be was a truly illuminating exercise. It made me look at my 17-year-old and remember, in a more powerful way than ever before, just how raw and vivid life is for her…” This exercise of writing a letter to your past self may be an interesting way to understand your teenager better. Perhaps you may even want to share the letter with your teen as it will inevitably share some important lessons for him/her.

In 8th grade Advisory our students wrote letters to their  parents. It began as a discussion as part of our “Relationship with Parents” Unit. We asked them, “Why is it sometimes so hard to tell your parents exactly what you need?” Some responses were- they judge you right away, sometimes it gets you in trouble, you feel like they don’t agree, you are embarrassed to admit some things to them, they don’t have the time etc. We then discussed that despite all these obstacles, we cannot expect them to understand us if we don’t tell them what we need. They cannot read our minds. That is what this “letter writing” activity was all about. The exercise began with a letter to you.

Dear Parents,
You know, how sometimes we misunderstand each other- or at least you don’t quite “get” me? I thought that it might be easier for you if you had an instruction manual so you can figure out what makes me tick. Read this guide carefully, and feel free to ask any questions. Thanks for listening.
Good luck,
Your loving and adorable 8th grader
They then actually created along with this letter an Instruction Manual all about them. Just like a new product comes with a booklet explaining all the features, so, too this booklet is designed to explain all their features to their parents. We had asked them to share the booklets with their individual parents. (We imagine that since it was not mandated, most of them did not show the booklets!). Often, it is difficult for teens to tell their parents how they feel. We encourage this old-fashioned exercise of letter-writing (or in this case, “manual-writing”) so that it is easier for them to express how they feel, and that parents can read and absorb what they have to say at their own pace.

In an era when the U.S. Postal Service may be closing 3,700 locations due to the lack of mail and letter-writing, I am championing the use of the obsolete letter. It is a wonderful way to create a history and a relationship with your child.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Teens and Trust

Trust is an essential aspect of our relationships with our teens. When we discover that they have lied to us, we feel betrayed and concerned that there are other things we don't know about our children. Teens lie to avoid punishment, to win respect and admiration from their peers, to spare someone's feelings or when they do not trust another person to tell him/her the truth. In studies, parents consistently rate honesty as the number one trait they hope for their children. There has been much research on teens and lying which can provide us with some sense of what we can do about it as parents.

In Penn State, teens were interviewed to ascertain their lying patterns as related to 36 topics. At the start of the interviews, they all stated that one should tell his/her parents the truth about everything. By the end of the interviews, 98% of the teens admitted to lying to their parents in 12 out of the 36 topics. In fact, it surprised them to realize how often they do lie. Topics like who they are hanging out with , what clothes they wore when they went out, the movies they went to see.. were all common areas of lying. Interestingly enough, on paper, 98% of children state that lying is morally wrong. “So, when do the 98% who think lying is wrong become the 98% who lie?” questions Po Bronson in a 2008 issue of New York Magazine “Learning to Lie.”

Lying is actually correlated with intelligence. Lying is an “advanced skill,” states Dr. Victoria Talwar of McGill University, as it involves recognizing the truth, conceiving of an alternate reality and then selling that reality to someone else. It require advance cognitive development and is a developmental milestone. However, most of us as parents would prefer that our children not be that smart!

As children grow they experiment with lying until about the age of 7, when lying decreases with most children. If children tend to continue beyond that age on a consistent basis, research indicates that they tend to utilize this strategy throughout childhood.

What kind of techniques can we utilize to dissuade our children from lying? Another research study indicated that when children were told stories before being tempted to lie- “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” or “George Washington Never Told A Lie”- they tended to actually lie a little more after The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Lying was reduced by 43% after they heard the George Washington story. They hypothesized that the punishment that the shepherd received did not help children understand how their lie affected others. Children who live in constant threat of punishment actually tend to lie more. Talwar highlights that “Parents need to teach kids the worth of honesty, as much as they need to say that lying is wrong.”

How do we relay that worth of honesty?
  1. Through modeling it. Most of our children learn to lie from us. We don't tell them to lie, but they see the many white lies we tell throughout our day, or the lie we tell to the man at the door so that he'll just go away, for example. Even white lies to avoid conflict and hurting another can be damaging without an explanation. They learn that honesty creates conflict. They even rationalize that when they do something wrong, if they lie to us it makes us feel better and therefore it's okay. So, if we need to bend the truth a bit, we need to take the time to explain why.
  2. Being honest with our children. If we are facing a situation that is difficult, i.e. an illness, if we can, we should try to share as much of the truth as is developmentally appropriate with them.
  3. Make it easy for them to tell us the truth. Let us not entrap them to lie to us unnecessarily. If you notice your child has violated a house rule, instead of saying, “Did you forget to take out the garbage last night?” say, “Why didn't you take out the garbage last night?” Do not leave an opening for denial.
  4. Talk about how you value honesty. Let them know that your values may be different from others in a different house, or on TV, but you expect them to cherish your family values.
  5. The research showed that the families where the parents were the most consistent at enforcing rules, while at the same time have the most conversations with their children, had teens who lied the least. Sounds like a good formula for parenting an honest child.
  6. Academic dishonesty- cheating or lying to a teacher or parent about schoolwork is a common area of lying. We just received report cards. Unfortunately, there are some students who have not been entirely forthright with the grades they have been receiving leading up to the report card. Children often “lose” their tests before the parents can sign them. The fear that they have of how we will react and the shame of disappointing us prevents them from being honest. We reassure them that we are here to help them and support them, and we cannot help them if they are not forthcoming.
  7. We tell them that if they tell us the truth about a misbehavior, we will not get angry- BUT we will still deliver a fair consequence.
  8. We need to highlight how their lies affect others. Even if they don't get caught, their lie can harm.

As parents, while we need to let our teens know that when they lie to us they do violate our trust in them, we need to make sure that we are not personally insulted by their behavior. Teens will test this trust as is developmentally appropriate. Our job is then to help them find ways to rebuild that trust. We must never say, “I will never trust you again!” And, when they do tell us the truth, we need to accept the news calmly and congratulate them on the courage they had to own up to what they did.