IMG_2187As a family we fall on the late-adopter end of the spectrum.  This is challenging for our kids when it comes to owning the newest technology which I’m pretty sure we have none of in our home.  It’s been similar with pets.  After becoming a parent, I remember the sense of awe I had watching other parents simultaneously following their toddler, pushing a baby stroller, and walking a dog.  I knew I’d never pull that off.

When our sons were in elementary school and began asking for a dog or cat, my first response was to say we already had a pet and point to their toddler sister, Annie.  “When Annie becomes less of a pet, we can think about getting an actual pet.”  Eventually, it was Annie herself begging for a pet.  Thus, four years ago we got a kitten, a good first pet for us.  But as it so happened, we adopted a kitty who never turned into the lap cat about which our kids had dreamed.  Over time, our children more and more desperately wanted a dog with whom they could run around and wrestle. 

Last summer, after having our kids do extensive research into the pros and cons of different dog breeds, we brought home a 7 week-old puppy from a dog rescue organization.  Our reading led us to adopt a puppy rather than an older dog in order to have as much influence as possible over her adult personality. 

Looking back, I am glad we got a puppy because in the end raising a puppy taught my kids a lot about parenthood. 

Early Puppyhood Is Not Unlike Life with a Newborn Baby

In the first few days with our new puppy, while I was suffering flashbacks of bringing my newborn babies home, my then 17, 15, and 12 year-old kids were realizing that this puppy adventure was going to be more involved than they had envisioned.  “You mean someone has to get up at night and take her out?” 

It was a cruel awakening.  One week in, we were all fairly sleep-deprived and cranky.  But our children were definitely learning what taking care of a puppy 24/7 felt like.  They named her Scout, after the character in To Kill a Mocking Bird which our sons had read in middle school.  Like all parents, they loved watching her sleep, and couldn’t believe how much energy she woke up with after those relatively short naps. 

During those days Todd and I talked a lot with our teens about how similar this was to when they were little.  We reminded them that we would sometimes go to 3 parks or playgrounds a day when they were young and their energy was overflowing our small home. 

I recall one day in Scout’s early life when each of us had something we needed to do away from home.  We were looking at schedules to make sure someone would always be available to take Scout out.  Daniel said afterward, “So this was what it was like when we were little?  And it was like this every day?”  Of course I wanted to say, “It was at least 3 times worse since there were 3 of you, and this phase lasted even longer,” but I didn’t because just seeing that flash of understanding in our teenage son’s eyes was incredibly gratifying. 

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You Don’t Have Full Control Over What Kind of Puppy or Child You Will Bring Home

It’s one of the most difficult aspects of parenthood—you must learn to love the child you are given.  Sometimes the hardest part is letting go of your previous hopes and expectations. 

All the puppy books said that the earlier you adopt a puppy (within reason), the more time you have to “shape” their personalities.  Now that we’ve had Scout for over a year, I shudder to think how she would have looked if we didn’t begin with her at 7 weeks.  Scout is like that extremely shy child at the playground.  She sort of wants to say hello to other kids, but when someone new comes up, she runs back behind her Mama’s legs. This has also been a valuable lesson for our children.  They have had to accept Scout’s basic personality.  Her complete adoration of our immediate family has at least helped with this. 

After our initial dog research, we had decided the breed we liked most was an Australian Shepherd.  A full-blooded Australian Shepherd wasn’t in the cards for us financially, but we were hoping for a half Aussie.  In the end we got what we refer to as a part Australian Shepherd, part Husky, part random white dog. 

Early on, we took Scout to a number of puppy play groups which the dog books said would help socialize her.  During these groups our kids often wondered aloud, “Why is our puppy the only one not playing?  The other dogs are having fun together, but our dog spends her time searching for food at the edges of the room.  You would think we weren’t feeding her!”  Or, “Is there something defective about Scout, why is she so shy?”  This led to conversations about the varied rates of development of different dogs (and children). 

I acknowledged to our kids how hard it had been for me at toddler play groups to see other kids who had mastered things my late-bloomers were still stumbling over.  Although it felt somewhat ironic that Scout seemed to have some of the same issues that all 3 of my kids had experienced as toddlers, I figured this was once again a great lesson for them.  They were learning that unlike a new bike which you can ride around the store ahead of time, and decide exactly what color you like, puppies and children develop and change in unexpected ways.  You need to work with and love them as they are.

Training a Puppy, Like Parenting, Is Not as Easy as the Experts Make it Sound

Remember those parenting book titles that gave us false hopes—Siblings Without Rivalry, for example? Soon after we adopted Scout we bought, The Perfect Puppy in Seven Days.  What puppy owner wouldn’t buy this book?  And honestly, aside from the title, it included some very helpful training tips.  Since we had older children when we got Scout, we strongly encouraged them to read this and a few other puppy training books which came highly recommended. 

Then we watched our kids learn the lesson that reading about how to teach a puppy a skill is one thing.  Doing it is another entirely.  The real life experience of training your dog to come, for instance, seems akin to potty training a child.  It takes time for the dog to learn the skill, and mistakes are of course made along the way.  Then after they’ve learned the skill you still must keep practicing it with them month after month.  And then inevitably some change will occur:  your child starts preschool, or your dog is no longer allowed off-leash at your usual play area.  Suddenly that wonderful skill you thought your puppy or child had mastered disappears.  This life lesson is simply not one you can “tell” a child about (at least our 3 kids), but experiencing it firsthand with their canine charge made an impression. 

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Dog Days

Now that Scout is close to a year and 1/2, we are further away from the crazy puppy days, and have hopefully climbed the majority of our steep puppy-learning-curve.  Seeing how much Scout adores our kids no matter where they are on the roller coaster of the adolescent experience is worth those first challenging months.  I still get a little jealous when I see other young dogs who run up to anyone wagging their tails excitedly.  But I so appreciate the unexpected lessons that our sweet, hyper, unknown-mixed breed, on-the-anxious-barky-side Scout has taught our teens and reminded their parents of as well.   

How did getting a pet work at your house?  Leave a comment below!

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At breakfast one morning last summer, Stephen, our 15 year-old suggested, “Let’s all go hiking this weekend.  I have a trail I want you to see.  It’s the one we’ve been working on all week.”

Stephen’s comment was notable for a couple of reasons. For one thing, 15 year-old boys don’t tend to enjoy spending more time than they must with their parents, and yet Stephen was requesting a family activity. Secondly, Stephen wanted to show us the work he’d done on that particular trail, a source of pride for him.

For the last two summers Stephen has worked with other teens doing trail maintenance in our county. Each morning the teens met up at 7:30, and after driving to their trail site, began digging, moving boulders, breaking up stumps, building steps, and creating water bars to reduce erosion until 3:30 each afternoon. Each day Stephen returned home tired but happy. This first “real job” has been a good fit for Stephen. Teens have such a surplus of energy, and it seems fitting for them to put that energy toward a good cause and get paid for it.

I have two teens now ages 14 and 16, and all the books I’ve read on adolescents say that kids in this phase want to be taken seriously. Adolescents want to do “real work” that contributes to their family and community. They feel respected when they are doing work that we parents might pay someone to do. Teens are proud when they are working beside adults doing a task that is truly needed.

Figuring Out How to Best Use Summer Vacation

Each spring, I find myself contemplating these factors when I plan for our upcoming summer. Which activities will my kids benefit most from? (This doesn’t mean I don’t ask them what their preferences are, but I like to consider the options beforehand, as well.) As my kids have gotten into the double digits, I appreciate their willingness to take on some kind of paid work each summer. And I often find myself comparing a sports or music camp to a work opportunity when it comes to summer activities.

Parents regularly hear how valuable sports, art, and music are for our children, and we usually have numerous options to choose from in these areas each summer. While I agree that these activities are wonderful for kids in many ways, I don’t think they give adolescents that feeling of doing “real work” which they crave.

In Dave Ramsey’s book written with his daughter Rachel Cruze, Smart Money, Smart Kids, they titled their second chapter, “Work: It’s Not a Four-Letter Word.” They say it’s vital for parents to teach kids “how” to work. And they add:

We teach [our children] to work not for our benefit, but because it gives them both dignity in a job well done today, and the tools and character to win in the future as adults.

Looking Back at My Teen Years

When I think back on what I was most proud of as a teen playing numerous sports but also working at a job, it was that I made my own money working alongside adults. I worked in the warehouse of my stepfather’s camping equipment store when I was 15. (Yes, he started me out at the bottom.) Then for the next two years I worked in his store fitting hiking boots, and selling winter jackets and camping equipment. I remember how good it felt being taken seriously by customers who were twice my age. When I consider those work experiences, I realize I gained knowledge at work that I didn’t get in other areas of my life. I also learned that I never want to work in a warehouse again!

Tween and Teen Job Possibilities

Now as a mom, I’ve encouraged my kids ages 16, 14, and 11 to earn money working in these ways:

In The Secrets of Happy Families, author Bruce Feiler interviews Warren Buffet’s banker who grew up poor, working many odd jobs and starting a number of small businesses as a young person. He mentions that Warren Buffet believes running a business is an important way for kids to learn about all aspects of money and money-making.

Life Skills Kids Gain from Employment

Learning How to Work:

These are all the lessons that most adults forget they themselves had to learn way back when. Show up on time. Look ahead at your schedule and tell your boss if you are going to miss a day. Find someone to cover your shift. Stay focused at work. Ask questions when you don’t understand a new procedure. Don’t talk on the phone or text with your friends while working.

Be Honest When Something Goes Wrong:

Admitting you were at fault is one of life’s harder lessons, but one that working teaches pretty regularly. Kids often need support from parents in this area, however, to learn how to handle or make amends for a mistake they’ve made at work. Recently Daniel, 14, was pet sitting. His client left him a check for the job ahead of time. Daniel put the check in his back pocket and there it stayed until his pants came out of the clean wash later in the week. Daniel wanted his client to know that he hadn’t simply cashed the check and requested another, so he wrote her a note explaining what happened, and included the pulpy pieces of the check in an envelope.

Learning to Read People:

When my friend Sue, now in her 80s, looks back on her work at her family’s restaurant during her childhood, she says this was where she learned to understand people. To do a job well, you must stand in the shoes of other people, such as your boss or customers.  My kids have noticed that many of their clients, for example, prefer their lawns mowed or driveways snow shoveled in a specific way.  They have learned from experience that they’re more likely to be asked back if they follow their client’s preferences.

I Can Do Something I Didn’t Think I Could:

It’s been babysitting that has taught my kids this lesson most often. When you are babysitting and a child you’re watching vomits, you clean it up. You just do. At home you would run screaming from the room, trying not to throw up yourself. At work, it’s another story. Or when a kid in your charge has a diaper explosion, you don’t get to make someone else clean it up. The buck stops with you. When this happened to Stephen, he put the child fully clothed in the bath tub and turned on the water. Not necessarily what I would have done, but he cleaned the child up and learned that he could think on his feet when needed.

Life Isn’t Going to Be Fun Every Minute of the Day:

“That’s why they call it work and you are getting paid for it.” Working at a “boring” job can give today’s overstimulated kids who are used to being entertained the understanding that it’s okay to be a bit bored or understimulated. Some of life requires this and it doesn’t mean something is wrong.

Increased Executive Functioning Skills (Or Getting Those Frontal Lobes Firing):

Work requires many higher level brain functions such as staying organized, managing time, switching focus, planning ahead, remembering details, and learning from past mistakes. When kids have a job, they are being paid to practice these skills (the ones which drove us crazy when they were younger) which will help them at school and home, as well as on the job.

All of these life lessons tend to be learned and re-learned on the job. Because it’s paid work, the client or the boss is more likely to tell the adolescent when they have fallen short somewhere.

A Parent’s Role

Because nothing about this whole parenting phase is as simple as I expected, the above mentioned life skills haven’t come as easily to my kids as I thought they would.  I wish I could just sit back and watch as the life lessons sink in.  But as Dave Ramsey suggests, parents should put the time in to teaching kids how to be good employees. We may need to ask kids regularly at first how work went, and problem-solve tough situations. We also may need to role play certain work scenarios with our children to increase their confidence.

Employers and clients additionally might not always have our kids’ best interests in mind. We will probably need to help our kids advocate for themselves by saying no to parts of the job now and again – for example overtime hours. And staying on top of school work and sleep are other areas teens who work may need some help with as well.

Overall, the fact that kids who work are basically being paid to learn valuable life lessons (even though it does take some parental support) seems like a win-win situation to me.

What was your first job and what lessons did it teach you?

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One Solution to the High Price of Big Kid Activities

January 29, 2015

A little over a year ago, Todd and I were having one of our monthly check-ins about family finances, and we came to the unfortunate realization that our family had more money going out than coming in. Ouch. The previous month we’d targeted a number of areas in which to reduce spending (cable, some organic […]

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How Family Meetings Look at our House

October 2, 2014

Summer is definitely over.  Sometimes it feels like we have four seasons in our family – winter, spring, summer, and chaos – or back to school season.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it when my kids return to school, and for the most part they do as well.  But for the last 2 years […]

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Sharing Vulnerability with Kids

February 14, 2014

Vulnerability.  That feeling of being completely exposed, clueless, clumsy in front of others.  Our kids may be better at vulnerability than we adults are.  Growing up requires them (forces them) to learn new skills and experience novel situations all the time.  Heck, every school year is like learning the ropes of a new job with […]

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How a Child Gets from Boredom to Creativity

October 25, 2013

I love the concept that a bored child, if left alone, eventually finds his or her way to creativity.  Whenever I read about this, as a mom I am filled with renewed hope and energy. “I’m going to let the kids be bored!  I can do this.  By the end of today, great things will […]

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Alaska Impressions

September 5, 2013

    “Mama, I’m going to walk in front with the ranger!  I want to hear her tell which berries I can eat.  Oh, and did you see how big the bald eagle’s nest was?!  I spotted the baby birds inside,” Daniel, my 13 year-old, rapidly informed me as he ran ahead along the beach […]

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“You need to talk more in class.” Introverted Kids in Today’s Schools

April 18, 2013

Ashley is an 11 year-old who lives in our neighborhood.  She’s soft-spoken and curious.  Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her.  A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking.  I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had […]

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How to Beat Cabin Fever: The Art of Roughhousing

March 7, 2013

When our middle child, Daniel, was 3 one of the phrases we’d regularly hear was, “Will you roughhouse me please?”  He was so desperate for this kind of play that it was the only time he consistently used the word “please.”  It worked.  Saying please usually does.  I regularly got down on the carpet with […]

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To Err is Human: 5 Ways Your Mistakes Can Make You a Better Parent

February 20, 2013

Please tell me something like this has happened at your house too.  Two weeks ago my husband Todd was sick with a flu that snuck by the flu shot mix this year.  He felt terrible for over a week, poor thing.  One weekend day I’d taken our oldest to an activity while Todd stayed home […]

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