Got tweens? Then you’ve seen it all: the tasteless duds, the sassy ’tudes, the roller-coaster moods, the peer-group devotion, the slow shedding of innocence.
Yes, I remember it well. Last century, we labeled this age group “preteens.” Today, although we’ve rebranded them “tweens,” not much has changed. Those critical three or four years before adolescence officially shows up teem with curveballs and commotion, and shock and awesomeness.
The good news: It gets better.
The bad news: Not for a long time.
Now that my own tweens have evolved into teens, young adults and, yes, parents themselves, I can enjoy watching — make that gloating — while they begin to navigate this rewarding (and rocky!) road with their own children.
Like all grandparents, I can offer my kids a few insightful words of parenting wisdom, based upon my deep-in-the-trenches experience, clear-eyed observations and decades of waiting patiently to tell them what I really think.
In fact, a fresh perspective on these tween years, combined with a highly selective memory, gives me a warm yet warped sense of nostalgia, normally reserved for overidealized holiday family gatherings.
That’s why I have assembled this list of unscientific reflections, “What I learned from parenting tweens.”
I learned to communicate
How can I forget those verbal misfires that cropped up — nearly daily — during my kids’ tweens years? A question as simple as “You’re not wearing that, are you?” produced emotional fireworks. That’s because my kids reacted by wondering, “Do I look that bad?” followed by thinking, “Why is she always so critical?”
According to Adele Faber, co-author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, we need to become better at considering our kids’ feelings and temperament before saying . . . well, practically anything. “You have to know your kid,” she says.
Raising tweens teaches us to parent with empathy, self-awareness and compassion. “It is when our words are infused with our real feelings of empathy that they speak directly to a child’s heart,” Faber writes.
Following plenty of bloopers (example: “How was your day?” “Fine.” “How was your test?” “Fine.” “How was . . .”), I learned to be less critical and more thoughtful — and to pick my battles wisely, even if that meant allowing my daughter to wear neon orange tops to school.
I learned algebra
Just kidding! I never did master algebra, but I did figure out how to help my tweens with their homework.
Finding ways to get that nightly grind done was a steep learning curve . . . for me. I was the parent who couldn’t understand why my son kept a tangled Trapper Keeper and blew past his assignments; and why my daughter savored social shindigs, not social studies. Both tweens just said yes to Pac-Man, sitcoms and Sony Walkmans, and shrugged when I nudged them about their history projects, English papers or science exams.
Thanks to new research in neuroscience, we now know that the adolescent brain is still under construction — and that when it comes to decision making, risk taking and judgment, teen and tween thinking is, shall we say, not fully developed.
After countless struggles and chronic nagging, I learned to oversee their homework, not manage it. I set aside the time and space for them to study — without video games, music or re-re-reruns of The Wonder Years. I made an effort to connect with their teachers and make sure both kids understood what was expected of them. Then I tried hard to be mere background noise.
I learned to love basketball
. . . and hip-hop and ballet and drama and water polo and juggling and every other crazy hobby, activity and sport they landed on, even if it wasn’t a hobby, activity or sport I personally would have selected.
Sometimes it was fun, sometimes not so much. Like the time my son spent the entire baseball game in the dugout. Or the time my daughter didn’t get the part in the play. Or the times they didn’t practice, or they quit the team, or they played “Minuet in G” when the program listed “Fur Elise.”
I learned that s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g their minds — with music and art and physical activities — can actually wire their brains. According to a Harvard University study, children taking music lessons for just 15 months show stronger connections in “musically relevant brain areas” and perform better in certain tasks.
And physical exercise, it turns out, can “grow a better brain,” according to Eric Jensen in his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind. This suggests, he writes, “both a huge opportunity and the liability suffered by students who don’t get enough exercise.”
What’s more, after-school programming can be a Very Good Thing for tweens, especially in today’s screen-loaded culture. It keeps them busy. It instills organizational skills. And it offers them positive alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat . . . and whatever social site is being launched this very moment by some 14-year-old brainiac.
I learned why ‘mean’ is a four-letter word
As in “mean girls” or “mean boys” or “Why you gotta be so mean?”
Watching your tween son or daughter be excluded, picked on, ignored or rejected is downright painful. And who hasn’t witnessed some version of that ridiculous rite of passage? As Rosalind Wiseman writes in Queen Bees & Wannabes, “Every girl I know has been hurt by her girlfriends.”
And boys? Don’t think they get off easy. “Boy cliques control boys just as girl cliques control girls,” says Wiseman.
I learned that no matter how well-adjusted or well-liked or firmly ensconced in the tween world your child is, he or she will — at some point in time — get left off a party list. Or get left out at lunch. Or get left behind by the cool kids and their posse of popular pals.
But I also learned that it helps when kids find friends — through sports, clubs or other activities — who are in different social groups. My daughter bonded with her theater crowd; my son, with his baseball buddies. That offered them a welcome respite from those tweeny classroom cliques.
What else helps? When you, the parent, respond to your kids with sympathy and concern if they feel down and left out. Most of all, it helps when you and your child problem-solve together — and keep those crucial conversations going. After all, what could be better than a hearty tween tête-à-tête? ”