Very Smart Writing on Teens

There should be a literary award for the author who writes most intelligently about teens. The person who best rejects mindless stereotypes and embraces their humanity. My nomination for this year, Rachel Cusk, author of a New York Times Magazine essay titled, “The Mother of all Problems: On Raising Teenagers“.

My favorite paragraphs:

But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.

Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.

Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.

The 5 Most Important Things You’ll Read All Week

1) Have you noticed? Increasingly, bloggers are inserting numbers into post titles to increase readership and improve search engine rankings. “5” has replaced “3” for most popular number. “17” is trendy too. I don’t know why numbers increase readership and improve search engine rankings. I find it disingenuous at best and insulting at worst. As if all anyone can process anymore is a list. My one-time use of it here is sarcasm. I should start a movement. . . force a number into your title and we’ll refuse to read what follows. Who is in?

2) Imagine a world in which everyone reads and discusses books with people different than them. My favorite story from last week.

3) The Seattle Mariners are the best team in baseball when it comes to this.

4) Is this a trend. . . dad’s helping grown daughters who aren’t necessarily interested in their help? I’ve never offered unsolicited advice to my daughters. . . that’s an additional serving of sarcasm. One of my daughters’ friends laughed at her dad for sending her an article on “How to save and invest money”. Another “couldn’t believe” her dad mailed her bicycle to her at college, then assembled it during a visit. The “extremely large” bike box was difficult and embarrassing to pick up at the mail room. The two wheeler was used one or two times during the school year. This isn’t limited to dad’s and daughters. Parents often presume their young adult children want to save money, invest wisely, prepare healthy meals, bicycle, etc., etc. Maybe I should start a movement where parents let their young adult children know they’re interested in sharing different “lessons learned” if and when they’re interested. And then we’ll sit back and wait for our young adult children to ask us for help.

5) I’m filing this under “Sometimes I Amaze Myself”. I’ve done it again, I’ve come up with a brilliant idea. This one will enable me to extend my triathlon career for many more years. Based upon my swimming, cycling, and running training log, I have a very good feel for how fast I can swim 1500 or 1900 meters, how fast I can ride 40k or 56 miles, and how fast I can run 10k or 13.1 miles. That means all I have to do is guess how bad my transitions would likely be, and presto, I can spend a few minutes on-line on Mondays to see what place I would’ve finished had I actually shown up at that weekend’s races. This way I save tons of coin and race every weekend without swimming through seaweed or increasing my exposure to the sun. I “won” my age group at a few recent races.


What Sports Parents Get Wrong

As it turns out, some academic research is accessible and relevant to people’s daily lives. For instance, recent work on how best to parent young athletes.

Some of the findings. Travis Dorsch, sports psychologist, “When parental sports spending goes up, it increases the likelihood either that the child will feel pressure or that the parent will exert it.”

Daniel Gould, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, “The more parents do, the more they expect a return on their investment.”

Kevin Helliker in the Wall Street Journal:

This finding is likely to baffle parents who view Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters as star-studded products of heavy parental investment. It also calls into question the validity, at least in sporting arenas, of the so-called tiger style of parenting that spares no expense in the pursuit of top-notch results. Many sports parents struggle to strike a balance between supportive and pushy. A parent in the stands can help a child feel proud about doing well, as well as withstand the disappointments inherent in competition. And without parental help, most children couldn’t afford basic registration fees. But recent research suggests that large amounts of money can transform support into pressure.

Helliker adds:

How deeply Mom and Dad ought to invest in a child’s athletic activities is controversial. Jay Coakley, a University of Colorado professor emeritus of sports sociology, argues that the less the better. Greater parental spending tends to weaken a child’s sense of ownership of his athletic career, sometimes destroying his will to succeed, he says. “Kids are being labeled as burnouts when actually they’re just angry at having no options in their lives,” says Dr. Coakley.

I’ve written before about Richard Williams’ genius. As the story goes, Williams, the father and childhood coach of Venus and Serena, would hide their racquets once a year as a check on their motivation. The first day they’d celebrate a break from his rigorous practices, but by day two they would empty every closet to find the tools of their trade. That was all Williams needed to continue pushing.

Hard to imagine, but Lucy Li, an 11 year-old sixth grader, has qualified for the Women’s US Open this June at Pinehurst No. 2. Ten years ago, I watched 14 year old Michelle Wie play in the Women’s US Open at Pumpkin Ridge, west of Portland. Here’s hoping Li’s parents learn from Wie’s. Wie was considered a once in a generation talent—exquisite swing, athletic, and much longer than the other women. Everyone assumed she’d rewrite the record books. The only record she set was for unfulfilled potential. Most people who cover the LPGA blame her dad for his over involvement in her life and career. Only recently, since graduating from Stanford and establishing her own home in Florida, has she had success on the LPGA tour.

I hope Li’s parents don’t push her too hard. Obviously, the talent is already there. Odds are, her success will hinge on how much she enjoys the game. I have some unsolicited advice for mom and dad Li. Hide her sticks on occasion.


Spring Reading

For when you’re done with your spring cleaning.

1) Teaching Tolerance—How white parents should talk to their kids about race. A must read if your goal is to be “color blind” and raise “color blind” children. I started out skeptical thinking adult behavior easily trumps parent “talk”. But Wenner Moyer makes a convincing case for both.

My “kids and race” story from my junior year of college. I was a teaching assistant in a culturally diverse 3rd grade magnet school classroom in West Los Angeles. One day I was sitting at a round table helping five or six students write stories. One light skinned African-American girl began to rub my pinkish, freckled forearm with her hand. Thinking deeply, she finally blurted out, “You have salami skin!” Feeling a need to return serve, I replied, “Well, you have chocolate skin.” To which another darker skinned girl said, “Huh uh, she has carmel skin, I have chocolate skin!”

2. The Oracle of Omaha, Lately Looking a Bit Ordinary. Can we finally wrap up the active versus passive investing debate and move on to more pressing issues like who will replace David Letterman next year? Even Warren Buffet says Vanguard Index funds are the single best way to invest one’s money.

3. Her First, and Last, Book. Graduation season is around the corner. This is a grad story to remember. “I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” Paragraph to ponder:

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

Relational Teaching, Coaching, Parenting

While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”

Too scared.

Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.

Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting  their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.

It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.

One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.

Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.

Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.

What Excellent Teachers Do

Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.

Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.

As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.

The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.

Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.

Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.

What Baby Boomers Get Wrong

The “Get Wrong” series is so popular, the Good Wife recently asked when I’m going to post on what she gets wrong. Since she’s a card carrying Baby Boomer, here’s some of what she gets wrong.

First, some context. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a full-fledged generational cage match going on and the Millennials bring it via YouTube!

At first glance the vid appears to be light-hearted entertainment. In actuality, it’s poignant, hard-hitting social criticism. When it comes to generation gaps, Baby Boomers like me (I’m a tail ender) make two mistakes over and over and over.

Mistake 1—Based upon a few negative encounters with Millennials, we get so worked up, our brains shut down; consequently, we overgeneralize about all young adults. Here’s an idea Boomers, let’s stop starting sentences with “Millennials”. Any sentence that begins with the word “Millennials” is likely to be a gross and inaccurate generalization. Unless, of course, it’s “Millennials make some damn good videos.”

Mistake 2—Baby Boomers are lightening quick to say Millennials suck, and yet, take no responsibility for their alleged shortcomings. That’s the brilliance of the vid. Their flaws are the direct result of our parenting, teaching, coaching. Millennials didn’t suddenly appear out of the ether like the first invertebrates. Here’s another idea Boomers, let’s stop ripping the Millennials without explaining our culpability.