Teen Interview - Sign HereA 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 foods, some weekly driving), but evidently these cuts were not extensive enough. Because our financial squeeze coincided with our kids taking on and/or pleading to begin various new activities, we decided to look more closely at kid activities for potential cuts.

As we weighed these expenses, 2 activities rose to the surface, showing themselves like a child’s shaggy, summer head begging for a haircut. These were To-Shin Do and Children’s Theater. You know how, as a parent, you often have a love-hate relationship with certain kid activities? It usually has to do with how much driving you do for them, or perhaps how you feel about the coach or other participants, or maybe that particular event has always annoyed you. And although you’ve tried to hide this from your kid, it doesn’t necessarily protect it from rising to the top of family budget cuts. I personally, didn’t feel this way about To-Shin Do or Children’s Theater, but my dear partner may have. Therefore, to the financial spotlight they rose to be scrutinized.

First we decided to have a family meeting to find out how our kids currently felt about these activities. Since we’d already given this issue much thought, we sort of figured that upon offering our kids the option of taking time off, they’d concur. First we laid out the situation for our sons, Stephen, 15, and Daniel, 13, inquiring whether, after 2 and ½ years, it was time to take a break from To-Shin Do, a self-defense-oriented martial art. Emphatically they responded, “Absolutely not.”

We then told them that with the rather high price tag for 2 student memberships, we needed to make some kind of a change in our To-Shin Do regimen. For maybe 10 minutes, we began to work more like those higher-functioning families you read about in books. We put our 5 heads together and brainstormed ideas to bring the To-shin Do price down without taking time off.

A Possible Solution

Since our kids had run a “neighborhood services” business for the past 8 years, they considered offering to clean the dojo (the gym where To-Shin Do occurs) weekly in exchange for a partial scholarship. They also were doing a lot of babysitting, so they thought they could perhaps help teach the younger children’s classes. Additionally, they offered to work at the front desk of the dojo as a barter for a partial scholarship. After making sure that the boys felt comfortable with each of these options, we helped them compose an email to the To-Shin Do director.

It was hard for our sons to wait for the director’s response, but that also confirmed to us how much continuing to train in To-Shin Do meant to them. They each strongly wanted to reach the black belt level, and they were halfway there.

Not long after, we heard from the director. She generously suggested that both Stephen and Daniel could be trained to work at the front desk in exchange for partial scholarships.

Our Daughter’s Situation

Meanwhile our 10 year-old daughter, Annie, confronted a similar situation with her Children’s Theater group. Rather than take a break from theater, she dramatically (as any theater kid worth her salt) insisted that she desperately wanted to be a part of the upcoming musical. So, Annie emailed the theater director mentioning that she’d had experience working with young children since she’d begun her mother’s helper business the previous summer. Annie offered to be a teacher’s helper in the young children’s class in exchange for a partial scholarship.

In Annie’s case, the theater director was also willing to take a risk and agreed to Annie’s offer.

Relief!

Todd and I were so relieved that these somewhat unorthodox solutions to our financial concerns had been arranged! Additionally, it felt right that our kids were putting in extra time and energy toward something about which they were passionate.

Not Quite as Simple as We’d Expected

My relief lasted for about a week, until my kids began the “work” part of their deals. Don’t get me wrong, it was still very positive, just not as easy and parent-free as I’d initially envisioned.

Daniel, at age 13, was a bit more challenged by working at the front desk than his older brother. He wanted to do it, but there was much to learn – from the computer system, to how to greet people on the phone, to the process for collecting payments. It took longer than I expected to help Daniel learn the ropes of his new position. I was also reminded that teenage boys don’t necessarily come out and tell you what may have gone wrong at work. (At least mine don’t. Please don’t tell me if yours do.) You have to ask the right questions to glean this information.

“Why didn’t you mention that you’d had a hard time collecting a payment last week at work?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“Okay…”

The boys and I did quite a bit of role-playing of potential work scenarios (phone and in-person) over the first 4 months of this new work experience. If I had guessed how long I would have needed to work with my sons to help make this work-as-barter venture successful, I probably would have said 2 weeks. On the other hand, it kind of fits with my overall experience of parenting – envision how long you think something will take to teach, and multiply it by at least 5.

Children’s Theater Assistant

Annie’s work with the young kids at the Children’s Theater was only a 4 month commitment. As it turned out, her experience of bartering work for a scholarship was smoothest, likely because she wasn’t required to learn as many new skills.

Soon after Annie began her work, the director told me she was believed this was a true win-win situation since Annie, who was to be a lead role in the musical, could regularly practice the scenes she had with the young children in her class. Additionally, Annie already knew a number of the young girls in her group. And as you may be aware, little girls often semi-worship big girls. Annie was able to harness the big-girl effect to her advantage during this work experience.

A Year Later

It’s actually been over a year since we began these work-as-barter arrangements. Annie’s situation continued as smoothly as it began, with a little bit of do-I-have-to-go-in-again crabbiness on some work days. Her teacher’s assistant position ended once the performance was over. Overall, Annie was proud that she’d been able to help out in this way for herself and for our family.

Stephen and Daniel continue to work the front desk for three shifts a week, plus attend a weekly staff meeting. They are each more comfortable now with the work, though Todd and I continue to periodically check in about how it’s is going. When it’s dark or icy out, the boys can’t bike to work and it requires even more driving on our parts. On the other hand, this work has required the boys to learn a new level of responsibility, as well as some of the ins and outs of a small business.

“So we need to tell them ahead of time when we are going to be out of town?”

Additionally, Stephen and Daniel’s front desk work is definitely “work.” You’re not allowed to do your homework, or check your phone while at the desk (well, Daniel doesn’t have a phone yet, but that’s another blog post.) Basically, it’s not one of those “fun” jobs. Because of this, this experience has helped our sons better understand what work feels like, as well as make a deeper commitment to why they are doing this work in the first place – moving slowly but continually toward those To-Shin Do black belts.

Has anyone made a similar arrangement for their kids?  Leave a comment!

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How Family Meetings Look at our House

by Suzita on 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 we’ve had kids in 3 separate schools – elementary, middle, and high, and it’s been a lot to manage.

Back to school time is like a wave crashing down. It knocks you over, then swirls you around under water for long enough that you’re beginning to worry, until at last the water recedes.  You plant your feet on the sandy bottom and take a deep breath, thankful that you survived, smiling at the folks at the water’s edge – when the next wave crashes down on you.

These last couple of school-year beginnings have felt this way to me.  So I did what I often do.  Rather than reinvent the wheel (or the life jacket), I sought out ways others are coping.

My sister heard about a book she thought I might like (need), The Secrets of Happy Families:  Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More, by Bruce Feiler.  With that title, how could I not read it?

Feiler searches for new ideas in various fields, and applies these to families – something I enjoy doing myself.  As I read through his book, the sentence that caught my eye most was:

“Weekly family meetings quickly became the single most impactful idea we introduced into our lives since the birth of our children.”

I’ve been meaning to put some kind of family meeting in place at our house for maybe a decade now.  This was a sign the time had come!

How To Do It

Feiler models his weekly family meetings on the business world’s movement called “agile development,” a way of running an organization from the bottom up as well as top down.  This strategy uses regular check-ins with many small teams about what is working and not working in an organization.  Feiler’s agile-style family meetings are based on 3 simple questions.

1. What things went well in our family this week?

2.  What went wrong in our family this week?

3.  What will we work on this coming week?

It sounded so straight-forward, I had to give it a try.

How It’s Worked So Far

Family meetings have been slightly less life-altering for us than Feiler, but I’m still glad we started them.  My kids are currently 11, 14 and 16 (girl, boy, boy).  While these are clearly important ages to stress communication, these are also ages when communication, especially with teenage males, begins to decelerate.

Our family meets on Sunday evenings and uses Feiler’s 3 questions as our foundation.  We often start by recapping the previous week, because honestly there are times when things are so hectic that it’s hard to remember what we’ve just come through.  Lately we pat ourselves on the backs for simply making it through the last week.

After this, we’ve had some worthwhile conversations about what’s worked well in the prior week.  Other families profiled in The Secrets of Happy Families seem to regularly have deep and meaningful conversations in their family meetings.  At this point, I wouldn’t call our conversations deep.  I hope that doesn’t mean our family is more shallow than others.  Maybe that’s why our family isn’t profiled in Feiler’s book?   Anyway, our meetings remain a work in progress.  Hopefully they’ll gain depth with time.

Feiler emphasizes the importance of focusing on your family as a unit, not how well each individual has done in the previous week.  Along these lines, our conversations have been beneficial, helping us feel we are on the same team.

My kids have been less communicative about what has gone wrong in the previous week.  It’s tricky because if the kids don’t bring the “problem” issues up, it’s just Todd and me presenting the negatives.  Our family meeting could morph into a place where kids might get in trouble from the top down.  We have emphasized to our kids that these meetings are a time when anyone can say what they feel is working or not, and that perhaps they’ll find a way to fix what’s not working.  Perhaps we need to say or do more in this area, though.

As I write this, I realize we have additionally begun to drop the ball a bit with question 3 – What will we work on this coming week?  We seem to be skipping this subject.  Hmm.  This may be because we haven’t focused as much on what’s gone wrong.

What’s Worked Well

On the other hand, many things have been going well in our weekly meetings.  We never meet for much longer than 20 minutes.  Feiler suggests this, and I second it.  It’s a way of respecting people’s time, and if you have adolescents, it’s a way of acknowledging that they will often begin to shut down (even more than usual) if you talk too long with them.

I just read another great book that suggested if you are telling an adolescent something important, you have 60 seconds of their attention.  Get in and get out.  Interesting.  In the same vein, one of my parental ulterior motives for these meetings is to teach my kids what an efficient meeting looks like – useful information when they enter the labor force some day.

At the end of our meeting each Sunday we open the calendar to clarify what’s in store for the upcoming week.  We ask the kids to let us know if there is anything significant (perhaps an audition or exam) not listed, and mention that it’s important for each of us to know when someone is facing something challenging so that we can support each other.

Our most recent family meeting followed a week when 4 out of 5 of us had been sick.  Todd made the valuable point that when someone is sick, we expect the others to step up and offer extra help either to them directly or around the house.  (When our kids were younger, they wouldn’t have needed this reminder, but it seems that older kids often forget this message.)

Unexpected Experiences

Going through the calendar together each week has somewhat surprisingly become an easy method for considering each person’s priorities.  Todd and I attempt to embrace simple living in our family and these meetings have unexpectedly become a place to highlight some important aspects of simple living.

-How to politely decline an invitation or request.

-What our top priorities are currently at a given moment.

-Whether or not each of us feels over-scheduled and what to do about this.

I think what I’ve most appreciated about our family meetings is that they are a regular time to think together about some of these crucial life issues.  I see this as a process.  As we repeatedly discuss these essential topics, our kids will slowly improve at:  saying no to some of the myriad of opportunities flooding their in-boxes, knowing their priorities, and regularly scheduling down-time in their full lives. And hopefully their parents will too.

 

What elements have led to successful family meetings at your house? What hasn’t worked?  Leave a comment!

 

 

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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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Promoting Your Child’s Passions

November 8, 2012

On our vacation to the East Coast last summer, I spent time with my childhood friend, Virginia, and her 4 kids.  Her oldest child, Micah, had just turned 15 when I saw him.  I don’t usually expect 15 year-old boys to be great conversationalists.  And for the most part Micah was succinct, though polite when […]

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During Life’s Tough Times – 6 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Uncertainty

September 27, 2012

Our middle son, Daniel, just began middle school.  A middle child in middle school.  It’s gone about as you would expect from that combination – not too well.  Daniel now attends our neighborhood middle school, but comes to it from an elementary school across town with few friends in tow. The challenge is that most […]

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