12 January 2009

Choices When Parenting Tweens

There are people who go gaga over babies. Over the holiday season, I was introduced to my two baby nieces, and to the baby daughter of my wife's BFF. It isn't that I don't like babies, but I lack the discernment to really distinguish one from another.

By the time they reach elementary school, however, the story is entirely different. Suddenly, they have personalities, opinions, interests, and direction. You can watch in wonderment to see the tendencies of you and your relatives sometimes perfectly mirrored, and other times utterly rejected.

They can also start to be some help around the house. My nine year old, with only minimal assistance, made our entire New Year's Eve dinner, complete with menus and an imaginary tip to calculate. My seven year old, with the vigor that can only come from lack of experience, shoveled our walk on this snowy morning. Amazingly, like the kids lined up to paint the fence in Tom Sawyer, this isn't even work for them yet, it is a new experience that they're eager to share. While child labor laws are a necessity, the centuries when children were vital economic contributors to the household weren't entirely wrong.

Living in the Denver Public School district makes understanding your children's personalities, opinions, interests and direction not just a private joy, but a practical necessity. The days of my own childhood, where there was one public K-12 option for you based on where you lived, and one secular K-8 private school, if you were so inclined, are relics of a small town life that I left behind. In Denver, there are choices, lots of them, and the system has made every effort to array them not as good, better and best, but as schools with different specializations.

At the middle school level in Denver, there are two schools of the arts, one well established (but experiencing a bit of administrative turmoil) and another new. There are a couple of schools with gifted and talented programs and another with a pre-International Baccalaureate program. There is a school devoted to science and technology. There is a school devoted to foreign languages. Some are charter schools, some are ordinary public schools with special programs, and some are just ordinary public schools. There is a neighborhood school which was historically underwhelming but with a core of parents working to make it better. There is the option of choosing a school out of the district, or moving out of the district to secure such a school. The Saints, Mary, John, Anne and Vincent among them, all beckon. There are the Denver and Colorado Academies, Waldorf and Graland Country Day School, which is safely in Denver proper's city limits. Then there are the "Christian" schools, which our family, of course, dismiss out of hand -- not every option is meant for us.

The effect of this is to add a whole new dimension to an otherwise ordinary science fair project, after school Spanish class, new found interest in fashion, part in a school play, or encounter with kids from different neighborhoods at a jump rope clinic. Will a love for peering through a microscope to discern which cleaner most readily dispatches dried chicken blood translate into happiness with a half hour trip each way to a well regarding science and technology school? Does a downbeat afternoon after Spanish rule out an International School, or does it just mean that today's conversation partner was being a jerk this afternoon because he forgot his afternoon snack at home? Does an interest in fashion portend a future in the stage craft program at the Denver School of the Arts, or merely years of credit card bills at the Cherry Creek Mall? How much do you simply look at your child's own interests, and how much do you look at the total academic program offered and the degree to which the non-curricular side of a school looks healthy? How much do things like the quality of the facilities or the length of the trip to school each day matter?

More mundanely, which interests require follow up and support, and which do not? Does a beloved art class project oil painting hanging on a bedroom wall suggest that a weekend painting class is in order? Will saying yes to violin lessons buttress a life long love of music, or simply add to the guitar and keyboard and drum sitting unused in a box in the corner after months of whining about practicing for violin lessons? Where does opening up possibilities for your children end, and over scheduling begin? Do you cheer on the fact that your child is reading far above reading level, or bemoan the fact that despite being able to read difficult materials, your child chooses much more basic books seven times out of ten when reading for fun? After your child has spent considerable time learning skating or skiing or Spanish, but not achieved mastery, should that child be allowed to quit without putting up a mighty fuss over it?

This brings up another part of the parenting of tweens. Suddenly, they have become cunning. Their efforts to manipulate you, for reasons that advance their own best interests and those that undermine them with equal frequency, have become conscious and calculating. After watching a Disney channel character use her puppy dog eyes and sweet pleading to manipulate her father, during a rare stint of TV watching while we were on vacation, my own daughter decided that the character had a good thing going and immediately set about to mimic the technique. Of course, old mainstays like wild, uncontrollable temper tantrums aren't gone as methods of parental manipulation. But, they work less well now that we've had almost a decade to learn how to handle them.

Our kids have had an overwhelmingly secular upbringing, living in an extended family where some of their relatives are just as secular as we are, while others are very intensely religious in different ways. They weren't baptized, have had only fleeting interactions with a local Unitarian church and with the religious traditions of family and friends, and know only the barest handful of biblical stories. This certainly hasn't prevented them from growing into well behaved children. Teachers and fellow parents frequently emphasize their extraordinarily good conduct above all their other tendencies and talents. But, one of these days, they will need to learn some of the stories and theologies enough to understand where others in our society are coming from. Should we teach them those at home? Should we rely on them to pick them up by osmosis from friends and the general culture? Should we wait until they have questions or raise it ourselves? Too much unsatisfied curiosity can make those ideas artificially tempting and forbidden. Too much importance attached to those lessons can create unwelcome interest where there wasn't any before. What is a secular parent of tweens to do?

Still, the pre-teen, elementary school years are good ones for parents. The dreaded specter of attitude and teen romance has not yet come into full bloom, while it is now possible to have genuine conversations with them. You can start to get a sense of what the future will hold, although the crystal ball is sometimes cloudy. What do you make of it when the first answer you can remembering your child expressing to the "What do you want to do when you grow up?" question, is "I want to be a contestant on 'the Bachelor' when I grow up."

Nobody promised it would be easy, I suppose.

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