Wednesday, February 26, 2014

College-Prep Chronicles, Volume 1

I am currently gearing up to appropriately stress over the realities that I will face as the mother of a high school junior. I figure I have seven months to work myself into a frenzy. Already I've been hit with a few reminders that clearly indicate my not-so-slow progression toward having a child "preparing for college:"
  1. A letter from a local college admissions consultant, offering his services (for an undoubtedly steep fee).
  2. Notice of an upcoming SAT Boot Camp.
  3. A report from Rob that a couple of our friends whose kids are also sophomores have in fact signed up with one of those college. admissions gurus. Said gurus are dictating recommending the ideal cocktail of courses that will ensure said sophomores are accepted to their college of choice.
  4. When I asked a friend what her family was doing for spring break, she mentioned the possibility of making a few college visits.  
Dear God, is it that time already?

I don't want to panic unnecessarily, so I sought out the advice of an acquaintance who happens to be one of our high school guidance counselors. I sent her an email that went something like this:
Dear Kristin, I'm not freaking out or anything, but I saw the notice about SAT Boot Camp and I'm wondering if Ian should be going to that. I also heard that some of his classmates with particularly overeager engaged parents have already had their kids take the SATs. Are we late on that? What is the normal progression for these things? I'm freaking out over here...
Kristin assured me that we hadn't missed any important milestones in the frantic drive toward my son's college career. PSATs come next fall (and they recommend students take them without training/boot camp first), followed by SATs in the spring, which can be taken again the fall of his senior year. And I think there's an ACT in there somewhere, too. I thought I saved the email so I'd have this important information at my fingertips, but I've just looked for it and can't find it, and now I'm freaking out a bit. Take a deep breath...

The important thing about this whole process is making sure that Ian doesn't pick up on my hysteria concern. I wouldn't want him to stress out, too. Although something tells me it may be too late for that. Just yesterday he confessed to struggling with his grades (for the first time in 10 years), from which he tearfully concluded that he was destined to be a failure in life, never to amount to anything because of a C in Algebra 2. I don't know where he gets his flair for the dramatic. But seriously, these kids feel an overwhelming amount of pressure when it comes time for the reality of post-high school preparations. Between their own hopes and dreams, their parents' wishes, and the unspoken competition with their friends, junior and senior year is a hotbed of anxiety, stress, fear and insecurity. I've actually been advised to avoid all conversation about college applications and acceptance letters with any current high school seniors. "So, did you get in to your first choice?" might just be the thing that sends them over the edge.

I'm relatively certain that this won't be my only blog post on the topic of college; there's just so much territory to cover:

  • How to manage the impulse to nag your child for months on end to finish his/her applications.
  • How to control a strong desire to "lightly edit" their college essay.
  • How to avoid adding stress to what is already a stressful experience. 
  • How to refrain from pushing Villanova down their throats putting too much emphasis on Villanova, given my employee discount.
  • How to control your inclination to compare your kids' performance/grades/abilities to those of their friends, and question why he/she got in to that school and your kid didn't when they're clearly superior.
(Clearly, the next two years will be all about perfecting my avoidance techniques.)

Given the amount of ground to cover, let's call this part one in an ongoing series that I'll title the "College-Prep Chronicles." 

I welcome your topic suggestions and feedback.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reaping Your Rewards?

Our gene pools provide us with all kinds of personality traits. On the downside, my family tree has provided me with a healthy dose of crazy. On the upside, I was also bestowed with an above average work ethic. Sometimes this hides the crazy (i.e. at work), other times it reveals the crazy (i.e. at home). Just ask my kids.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who, like me, works for a large non-profit (albeit not a university). She expressed her frustration with a situation in which a coworker would have had to go above and beyond to take care of a time-sensitive project. Only a couple small steps were required to make sure the project was satisfactorily completed, but rather than take those steps, this coworker offered a (technically legitimate) reason why it couldn't be handled, and wrote it off. This led to my friend -- who shares my stubborn, hard-working Pennsylvania Dutch heritage -- having to trek through snow and ice, literally climbing over downed tree limbs, to get to her office and complete the mission. She, too, could have given her boss a legitimate reason for why the project wasn't going to be completed in time, but instead she made it happen.

Her experience made me think about some of the challenges in working for a non-profit. While those of us who pursue this career path recognize that we're never going to get rich (though I must state for the record that I feel more than fairly paid), the one thing we hope for is recognition for a job well done. Or even a raise based on performance. Yes, I said it! Imagine if your work determined your reward. It's such an old-fashioned concept. Because I've worked for non-profits for the past 12+ years, I haven't experienced this approach to employee compensation. In fact, this same friend noted that, after years with her organization, it was clear that whether your job performance was exemplary or average, everyone got the same annual cost of living increase. Granted, "non-profit" often translates into "no money," but I would argue that one whose performance is above-and-beyond should warrant, for example, a 4% raise, whereas a coworker who turns down every opportunity to take on more responsibility should only get 2%. That way we're still averaging out to that dismal 3% overall.

I had a conversation on this topic with my sister who works for a global health services corporation. She mentioned how she still calls home when she receives a great performance evaluation (even at our age we're still seeking our parents' approval). While I, too, tell mom and dad when something nice happens at work, my sister's evaluation means something substantially different than mine. For her, a superior review equals a bonus that's worth about 50% of my salary, as well as a raise for the new year. Again, I made a conscious choice to work in this world, and I would never survive in hers, but still, the financial differences, based on job performance, definitely sting a bit.

In light of this reality, I'm wondering if it still makes sense to work your ass off demonstrate an exemplary work ethic. At what point does this kind of employee succumb to thinking that "It makes no difference how hard I work, so I will no longer go above and beyond, giving up my personal time to get the job done." I have friends who are fiercely protective of their time away from the office. They refuse to check email, answer their phone, or schedule an important 30 minute conversation with a client if it needs to take place when they're "off the clock." I'm completely incapable of cutting myself off from my employer regardless of the time or day, but perhaps those individuals are the smart ones.

I think this approach to employee compensation, where everyone is treated equally, reflects one of the major problems with our society today. If we give people no reason to try harder, work harder, take pride in their work, or go above and beyond, why should they? If unemployment or welfare pay better than minimum wage, why bother pulling yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps and taking a low paying job? Whether you're with a large corporation, a medium-sized non-profit, or a small mom and pop business, if you've learned that your performance provides little reward, how long will you continue to give it your all? For some of us that work ethic is so ingrained, that we can't imagine ever giving less than 100%, but it certainly makes you think (and obviously harbor some degree of resentment).

I know Christians are supposed to take comfort in our reward being in heaven, but the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16), in which everyone is paid the same regardless of how long they work, just doesn't provide much comfort in today's secular world.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Little Girl is Growing Up

On Sunday, Abby turned 13, officially turning me into the mother of two teenagers. So far, so good.

Granted, it's only been 48-hours.

My youngest is pretty amazing. My oldest is, too, though they couldn't be more different. While they're both intelligent and "good" kids, their personalities are delightfully distinct. I'm not exactly sure whom Abby "takes after," but for the most part, it's not me. For example, she's private. You might be surprised to learn that I am not. Not only does Abby not share any juicy details about her life (most teens tell their moms stuff, don't they?), but she locks the door when she uses the bathroom and is fully clothed every time I see her. I don't recall having any such issues with privacy or modesty.

Abby is also rather reserved emotionally and stingy with her displays of affection. She so dislikes feeling sad or upset that we never watched most of the Disney classics because she knew there were some heart wrenching scenes that she just didn't want to put herself through. And as for affection, well, she gives me the top of her head to kiss good night. It's the weirdest thing. She has some major issue with kisses anywhere near her actual face. I suppose I'm lucky that she still takes the time to say goodnight and tell her dad and me that she loves us. I'll be okay with this discomfort with affection if it extends to boys in the coming years.

Then there's Abby's sense of humor. Frankly, it's kinda mean. She mostly enjoys physical humor, as in someone falling down the stairs or slipping on a banana peel. Where I get a kick out of the talking animals in the BBC videos, she's quick to remind me that "animals don't actually talk." She's very literal. The good news (?) is that Abby's increasingly laughing over silly teenage girl things, like goofy sayings she and her friends make up and share with each other as some kind of inside joke. "Whatev."

Academically, Abby is super smart. And good at math, which really confuses both Rob and me (the math itself and our kids' proficiency in it). Recently she's decided she'd like to go to MIT and become a computer programmer or software developer because somewhere along the line she got the impression that you can do those jobs sitting by the pool, just thinking up creative ideas. Given my job in the College of Engineering, I'm determined to (subtly) push her toward a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field. There are so few women in these areas that those who go for it can practically write their own ticket to career success. And did I mention that since elementary school, Abby has assured me that wherever she decides to go to college she'll earn a full scholarship so we don't have to worry about paying for it. I wouldn't bet against her on that.

That level of focus and determination is really Abby's hallmark and has been evident in the entrepreneurial spirit she shares with her long-time friend Maddie. You may recall the Sticky Ducks years (duct tape design business). Currently, the dynamic duo is all about baking and cake decorating. I can pass along their business card and portfolio if you're interested.

Because it's not annoying enough to be smart and entrepreneurial, Abby is also an athlete and musician. (She's actually tried playing the clarinet while hula hooping.) Whereas I was required to take remedial gym classes, Abby shines on the soccer and softball fields. She's competitive (we have that in common) and works hard to be the best she can be. For awhile she focused her musical talents on being first chair on the clarinet. Unfortunately, her interest in that instrument has waned (I blame the band director), but I'm pleased to say she's recently picked up the guitar. We literally picked up a nice guitar as her birthday gift and she spends her evenings looking up new cords and strumming classic rock songs. I love her complete commitment to those things she develops a passion for.

Truly, you can't help but love this kid, unless you're trying to outdo her in any way. Happy Birthday, Abby. You couldn't make me prouder to be your mom!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Well that's Depressing: A Checklist for Parents of Teens

Last week was back-to-school night at Ian's high school (they have block scheduling, which means classes change halfway through the year). Back-to-school night is like a high school flashback for the parents. Well, for me, anyway. I check out the cute guys what the other girls are wearing and regret my choice. I go to classes and wonder if that mom would get a better grade than me. Sometimes I have the classic anxiety dream the night before. The one where I have an exam and haven't been to class for months. Sometimes I show up naked.

This particular back-to-school night was made that much more upsetting interesting by the presence of a helpful handout. In addition to the schedule for the evening, this brochure included guilt inducing parenting mandates advice. Along with "Tips for Healthy Teens" there were "Keys to Being a Hands-On Parent," published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. In neither category did I score my usual an A. I don't think I even pulled out a B. Under tips for healthy teens:

  • Enough sleep? No. 
  • Breakfast? Abby, occasionally. Ian, rarely. 
  • Hand washing to kill germs? Um. Well. I think one of them does that. Not coincidentally, it's the child who doesn't get sick as often.

As depressing as my results were in the health category, I felt even worse about my parenting skills when I got to the anti-addiction/substance abuse guidelines. Based on my score, it seems my kids are destined for "at-risk behaviors." My failures lie in:
    • Not monitoring what they watch on television.
    • Not monitoring what they do on the internet.
    • Not putting restrictions on the music they buy.
    • Not having an adult present when they arrive home from school.
    • Not eating dinner with them (that would require feeding them - see #7 below)
On the positive side, I'm relatively sure:
    • I know where they are after school and on weekends. And I think they're telling me the truth about their whereabouts.
    • I'm aware of their academic performance. Yes, I definitely have that under control.
    • I'm making my values clear to them. They just have to remember to do as I say, not as I do.
    • There's no television watching during dinner. That's the only advantage of having just one TV in the house.
    • I've assigned them regular chores. I know that I've asked. Whether they do them when I ask is a whole other thing. 
Did this helpful brochure end on an up note? Did it soften the blow with an amusing or empathetic quote that reminded me how none of us is perfect, and that it takes a village, yada, yada, yada? No. What followed was a list of upcoming school events. None of which I was aware of and none that I'm interested in attending or volunteering for. I'm feeling really good about myself right now.

Since I'm already raw and exposed, I may as well add these 10 confessions, addressed to my wonderful teenagers:
  1. When you're helpful, pleasant, and nice to your sibling, I can't help but wonder what you want or what you've done.
  2. There are times I look forward to the day you leave for college, just so I can clean your room and it will stay that way for more than 24-hours.
  3. I have no idea which parts of your life I'm still supposed to be actively involved in. Should I be nagging you about your school work, or save my breath for the bigger stuff? 
  4. Speaking of the big stuff, I have a lot riding on your ability to drive. That's the day I will be free to fulfill my dreams of community theater stardom, attend best-selling author book readings, and take a class. I probably won't do any of that, but I won't have you as an excuse if I don't.
  5. I'm scared to death at the thought of you driving. You know it's not like Grand Theft Auto, right?
  6. Someone should invent an app that senses your mood (a modern day mood ring) and communicates those findings electronically so I know what to expect before I get home from work.
  7. I live in a constant state of uncertainty as to how much to provide for you. You demand regular feedings and clean clothes, which is a drag, but do you really need a Spanish class trip to Costa Rica?
  8. I haven't known the names of your teachers since you left elementary school. I just feel good when I know what classes you're taking. I hate back-to-school night when they imply I should know about your big writing assignment or end-of-the-semester project. Not sure who's to blame. You for not telling me anything, or me for failing to ask.
  9. Speaking of your classwork, I know that you know that I haven't known how to help you with your math homework since 2nd grade. So stop asking. 
  10. While I will enjoy your room being free of dirty dishes, dirty clothes, and toxic spills, I won't enjoy not having you here (that's a double negative, isn't it?). To be honest, as far as teenagers go, you're pretty awesome. 
Do you have your own confessions to share? Poor parenting loves company!