he's leaving the nest

Over the course of the 17 years since my son burst into my world and made me a mother, I've washed countless dishes, done magnificent amounts of laundry, and picked up more things from the floor than I can ever hope to estimate.

And today, as I was washing the blender that he left full of dried oreo milkshake residue, I couldn't stop the tears from pouring down my cheeks. Because in just a few short months, he will be graduating from high school and enlisting in the military. And you know what? There will be no more oreo shake residue on any of my dishes. And although I could not be happier for him or prouder of him, still ... the tears come.

So although it's hard to see what I'm typing through teary eyes, I'm writing anyway, because I want to tell you something important: Please, don't make a big deal over small things. Someday, those things that drive you crazy about your kids will also make you cry.

In the final few months we have together, the last thing I want to do is harp on him about his stupid dishes. I find myself offering to do his laundry. I am cherishing every mess he makes, knowing that soon, my house will be spotless, and quiet, and he'll be sending me letters and emails instead of sitting down with me spilling hot chocolate all over the kitchen table while he tells me about his day.

I think he must be feeling it coming too, a little bit. He's been asking to join me when I run errands for no good reason. He's been taking me out for lunch, and asking me to go shopping with him or help him start packing up his room. All is as it should be - he's ready, and it's time for him to take over full responsibility for his own life.

So I guess I just want to send you a message from your future: Your days of hassle and mess and noise are numbered.

Do your best to keep your sense of humor and perspective on all the chaos that comes with having young children.

Find one thing each day that you can just let go of, and laugh together instead.

Go find your children right now, and hug them for no reason.

Indulge them sometimes just because you can.

Give in more.

Buy them something at the checkout stand every once in a while.

Let them eat freshly baked cookies with milk for lunch. Join them.

Go out in the backyard and run through the sprinkler with them.

Make more messes together.

When you are standing in my shoes, I promise you will not regret doing these things. Parents sometimes think they CAN'T lighten up, or their kids will not learn good values. But that's not the case - they are learning far more from watching you than from what you teach them. So spend less time teaching, and more time playing.

It's really okay to relax, connect, and enjoy your kids.

If not now, when?

Thoughts on Preventing Sibling Rivalry: Don't Even Try to Treat Your Kids Equally!

As I headed out the door earlier this week to meet up with a colleague to  speak to a group about sibling rivalry, I asked my teenage daughter, as I always do, if there was anything she thought parents should know about the topic of the day.

"Sibling rivalry?" she asked, bewildered. "What's that?"

"When brothers and sisters feel like they have to compete for their parents' attention," I explained.

"Compete!?!" she snorted. "That's ridiculous! I know I am your favorite, and I can have your attention any time I want it!"

I was sort of taken aback for a moment, not knowing quite what to say to that. Then I quickly decided that if my son, who is the older one, says the same thing, then we are All Good. It's not a problem if they both think they can receive what they need from me when they need it!

As I was processing this, she said, "But, seriously, Mom, .... you love us so equally it's almost painful."

This really shocked me, because "equal" is a concept I simply never associated with love. For some reason, it just never occurred to me to worry about sibling rivalry. We baked a cake the day she was born to celebrate him becoming a big brother. Soon I was wearing her in the baby sling most of the day, and life sort of went on as usual for my son.

I didn't make a big deal about special time, equal time, or, really ... equal anything. Doing that would have required scorekeeping, which I am notoriously bad at. There's no little chalkboard inside my head. (It's probably a learning disability or something.) So instead, I just tried to be there for both of them in the ways they each needed. That, I could handle.

I guess I have sort of a radical theory on the whole sibling rivalry thing: Perhaps if parents don't tie themselves into knots trying to make everything equal, or trying to "make it up" to the older child, but instead focus on meeting individual needs as they arise, then the kids won't get so caught up in scorekeeping and comparisons, or see each other as rivals.

I'm not so sure the older kid actually loses out on as much as many parents seem to think anyway. When his sister was born, my son gained a worshipper, a follower, a fan, and an ever ready playmate who adored him and was at his beck and call. Is this supposed to be a bad thing?

Before she came on the scene, no one else had ever looked up to him with absolute trust and unshakable admiration. No one smiled with their whole body and lit up like a Christmas tree when he came in the room. No one followed his every move with rapt attention. Whatever he lost in terms of my attention, and I don't believe it was actually all that much, he more than re-gained in her attention.

Of course, as always, we need to meet our children where they are. If the older sibling expresses disdain for the younger, we just listen, without correcting or judging his feelings. Feelings are only feelings after all - they come and go, and move along much more quickly when neutrally acknowledged by a loving and caring parent who does not freak out.

But we don't need to feel guilty about "dethroning" our eldest. That throne gets kinda lonely after a while. Bringing home a sibling changes things -- for the better and for the worse, but mostly for the better.

If he sometimes wants the baby to go back to the hospital, empathize with him. Babies are noisy and messy and demanding, and it's okay for parents to admit that. We all feel ambivalent about change. That's normal. Letting your child know it's okay to feel that way will help him make peace with his own feelings, and he will relax when he sees you are not scared or angry.

We set appropriate boundaries on actions, of course, so we won't let him act out his feelings by hurting the baby. But talking, even yelling, about feelings ... well ... that's a mighty fine way to release them.

It's repression that drives this stuff underground, where it festers and comes out as rage. Instead of trying to convince him that he loves her, or that things aren't as bad as he thinks, or that you will spend some alone time with him next Tuesday to make it up to him, try just bringing it out into the daylight. Talk about the hassles together. Laugh about it. Grieve the changes together if that's what needs to happen.

But leave guilt out of the equation. It's just not necessary. You have enough to handle already.


Should I drug test my teenager at home?

Do-it-yourself home drug tests are inexpensive and readily available over the counter. Should you drug test your teen? Here are a few things to consider while making your decision:

What are you going to do if she tests positive?

First, be aware that the tests are not 100% reliable. A positive result should be confirmed at your doctor's office.

Second, be aware that drug testing is not the same thing as treatment. A confirmed positive result will require a response from you.

Will you call a drug and alcohol abuse counselor?
Will you tell your teen to stop and let her know you will continue testing randomly?
Will you sit down with her and find out what is going on in her world, and why she is using?
Will you ground her until she turns 18?
Will you call the parents of her friends?
Will you rant and rave and threaten and then hope you scared her straight?

Obviously, some of these interventions are more effective than others!
The point, for the purpose of this article anyway, is Plan Ahead.

What are you going to do if he tests negative?

Will you offer a reward or an incentive?
Will you speak a quiet word of appreciation for your son's character and good decisions?
Will you scowl and wonder out loud how he cleaned up so fast?
Will you coldly remind him that he'll have to do this again sometime soon?
Will you thank him for his patience and understanding?

How are you going to bring it up?

The best time to do this is before you suspect she is involved with drugs. However, if it's too late for that, here's one possible way to broach the subject.

Honey, we know it's tough to be a teenager today, and that you face a lot of temptation. We wouldn't feel like we were doing a good job as parents if we didn't make use of every possible tool at our disposal to support you in making healthy choices.

We want you to know that we bought a home drug test today, and we'd like you to take it. We've decided it makes sense to randomly test you periodically until you are 18. We hope that you understand why we are doing this - we care about you very much, and your health and well being are very important to us.

Please take this into the bathroom, and when you come out, no matter what the results are, we want to hear what you think and feel about all of this.

Unless she's a civil rights buff who passionately advocates for teen privacy laws on the debate team, if your teen freaks out, she is giving you a big clue about the impending result, yes? Give the test anyway. It's very important that you follow through.

Please notice, this talk did not sound like this: I know you are using drugs and lying to me about it! Go take this test right now, and I'll have proof that I am right about you! What red-blooded kid could take this sitting down? You'll have a nasty power struggle on your hands. If you take responsibility for it yourself, rather than blaming or predicting or implying that her character is flawed, things usually go more smoothly.

Random drug testing can be a fantastic deterrent to peer pressure. "No way, my parents could test me anytime!" is a pretty strong reason to Just Say No that other kids easily understand. Start testing while they are in middle school to maximize this benefit, and keep it up all the way until high school graduation. It will just become a way of life for your teenager.

This article only scratches the surface of this emotionally charged topic. If you'd like some help figuring out the best way to handle this in your family, I'm available by phone for parenting consultations. For more information, visit www.karenalonge.com/forclients.html

You may also be interested in the articles and information at http://www.drugtestyourteen.com/

don't interrogate your kids -- try this instead

My kids complain about being interrogated by their dad when they are with him. I want to know what's going on in their lives, but I don't want to follow in his footsteps by plying them with questions all the time. How else can I get them to talk?

Parents are often eager to hear what happened while their kids were away at their other home. It's hard to feel excluded from 50% of your child's life!

And yet, if you suspect you may be asking too many questions, you are probably right. If your kids respond with "I don't know," it may be kidspeak for, "I don't care enough about this topic to bother talking about it," or "This is an uncomfortable subject," or "I don't want to tell you." Sometimes, it might even mean, "Dad said not to tell you." In any case, it's a dead end.

One of the realities of joint custody is that we miss out on sharing some experiences with our children. It's not fair to ask them to fill you in on every little detail just to satisfy your own curiosity. It can be tough to let go of this, but it's important that we learn to connect with our children in the present moment, rather than trying to dredge up their past.

Sometimes, especially if we are worried, we push for more information by asking probing questions even after our kids have sent the "that's enough" signal. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to encourage your kids to talk is not to ask more questions, but to do more listening.

So just sit down. Be still. Wait for him to unwind a little, and give him a stationary target for his communication. To increase the odds of being noticed in all your receptive glory, sit in the kitchen close to the snack cabinet.

When he ventures into your vicinity, smile and say something mild like, "How's it going?" Your reaction to his response is important. Kids are always probing -- will she freak out if I tell her the truth? Will she get mad at Dad when she hears this? Will disclosing that create a hassle for me?

To increase your odds of passing those kinds of tests, be like Switzerland. Stay neutral. Don't freak out, don't jump to conclusions, don't raise your voice. Just take in it stride. Nod your head, sit back a little bit, take a breath, say Hmmmm. Don't share your opinion unless asked. Don't consider it a teachable moment and try to make a point. Just accept the information calmly, and leave a lot of empty silence around it.

Mom: Hey, how's it going?
Son: Aww, okay I guess.
Mom: Yeah? What's up?
Son: I'm pretty mad at Dad. He took my cell phone away.
Mom: Ohhh, hmmm. That's a bummer, huh.
Son: Yeah.
Mom: Nods, waits, and says nothing. Trusts that if she gives him some time, he'll say more!

Yes, I know, this seems simple, and is not necessarily easy. If you'd like some help figuring out how to be like Switzerland, I'm available by phone and email for parenting consultations. Visit www.karenalonge.com/forclients.html or email karen@karenalonge.com for more information.