How to Love Your Years Parenting Tweens
I’m 40, and my youngest child is 6. She starts real school in less than a month, and I say goodbye to many years as a mom of littles. As long as my body cooperated, I could still have another baby. If I had one more, it might mean giving my daughter a sister so she doesn’t miss out on the bond I’m lucky to share with my sisters. It would give me a few more years with a sweet little one who doesn’t roll her eyes at me or leave molding food wrappers to grow like mutant science projects in the far recesses of my minivan.
But my baby days are done. The decision must roll off of me in waves, because no one inappropriately asks me anymore if we’re going to have more kids. I’m pretty sure they don’t even secretly wonder. I’ve graduated from my mother-of-preschoolers days, and while I’m a little sad, I’m also looking toward this next phase of parenting older kids with some giddy excitement. We can take longer bike rides and ride roller coasters and watch Indiana Jones. I can leave kids home alone while I run an errand and have them empty and fill the dishwasher while I’m gone.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely things I mourn about being done with the baby days. I took my kids to the zoo this week. Without a stroller. I stared at my crap – water bottles and sunscreen and a lunch cooler with snacks – and wondered how the heck I was supposed to cart it around the zoo without using a stroller as my rolling locker. Then I put on my mom of big(ger) kids pants and loaded up a backpack so we could hit the road.
Not pictured: the backpack I now carry at the zoo because I don’t have a stroller.
I will also miss fuzzy heads that smell like Johnson & Johnson shampoo and kids that take naps and the instant bond formed with other moms at random playgrounds. Now I’ll just have to get my dose of some of these things with nieces and nephews and the kids of friends who might as well be related. It’s a win-win: they need a break and I need to smell a baby’s head and squish those roly-poly thighs.
The cuteness here is staggering, right? Not sure how it was 8 years ago.
And when I lift up the rose-colored glasses, there are plenty of things I won’t miss about being a mom of littles – though I’m a different and wiser and more humble person because I walked through them. For example: diapers, middle-of-the-night everything, days controlled by nap schedules, strapping bucking bronco kids into car seats and securing car seats into cars.
Honestly, the weirdest and probably hardest thing about this transition time as a parent is just accepting that I’m done with the “mom of littles” phase of life. My entire 12-year tenure as a mom trained me to take care of my helpless offspring: wipe this, check that, supervise this, handle that. I just got comfortable and started to feel like I knew the ropes, and now I have to start over as a rookie again. Sigh. I prefer being the teacher to being the student.
The next decade of parenting will require a new approach and different skills, and I’m right back at the start of a learning curve. I’m watching and reading and asking questions of my friends who already parent tweens and teens. Let the research begin.
One of my favorite parenting books a few years ago was Dr. Kevin Leman’s Have a New Kid by Friday. Despite the title’s over-simplified promise, Leman’s book has great info (he’s a psychologist) and hilarious stories from his own parenting journey (he raised five kids). Humor + legit research + real experience = my style all the way. I’ll have a 12-year-old in a few short weeks, so it’s time to order Have a New Teenager by Friday and hope he brings the same laughter and solid advice for my new challenges.
I needed a visual for my new role as a mom of elementary and middle school kids. Most sources point to three or four phases of parenting, and I kind of like Focus on the Family’s four-phase model:
- Phase 1: Commander (kids ages 0-5)
- Phase 2: Coach (kids ages 6-12)
- Phase 3: Counselor (teenagers)
- Phase 4: Consultant (adult children)
The first thing I noticed: I’m not even halfway through these phases, so I better buckle down and do my homework since I plan to be in this parenting thing for the long haul. The second thing I noticed: My oldest will be 12 in a month, so I’ll soon be serving as both a Coach and Counselor. Man, does this parenting thing start to hit fast-forward mode during the middle phases. But for now, I need to lay down my Commander badge and pick up my clipboard, because what my kids need as tweens is a Coach.
Welcome to Life as a Coach
I usually leave the sports references to my SALT effect colleague Kristie, because she’s the sports junkie. I’m jumping on this one, though, because I’ve played under my fair share of coaches, and watched my kids struggle and thrive under different coaching styles. In our role as coaches in parenting our tweens, it’s our job to provide strong leadership to our kids, but the best coaches do more than just shout orders and expect obedience.
The Harvard Business Review looked back at interviews with five famously-successful coaches and published How to Coach, According to 5 Great Sports Coaches. The experience of these coaches — and a few other favorites I added — provides solid advice for parents looking to draw out the best from their kids ages 6-12 and love the process.
New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi won more than 500 games as a manager. He credits preparation as the key to strong coaching.
“If you think too much, you fail, because the game happens too quickly. The key is preparation…The data has to become instinctual.”
As a parent, this means that the way you lead by example and teach in the small, day-to-day moments really matter. Older kids start to want more independence, but this isn’t the time to pull back too far. Stand firm on giving kids consistent responsibilities and expectations. It’s preparation for real life. Model the traits and habits you want to see in your kids as much as you can. Then when it’s game-time, those good habits will be their instinct.
I saw an eighth grade boy in our neighborhood leave a family picnic this week and make a point to go around and shake the hands of all the dads on his way out. “Good to see you,” he said to each of them. This boy’s dad served in the military and clearly has taught his son some important lessons in respect. I. Was. So. Impressed. This young man will take that same firm handshake and eye contact and respect into his job interviews and just nail it because he’s prepared.
After coaching gymnastic icons like Nadia Comaneci and Kerri Strug, Bela Karolyi’s biggest piece of advice was to use different approaches for different kids and situations. Sometimes circumstances call for criticism and other times encouragement. Some kids crumble under pressure and others flourish, so as coaches, we need to learn to adapt.
This means sometimes I need to bite back my critiques and just be a cheerleader, and other times I can let loose on the tough love. It also means I need to know my kids – what motivates them and what breaks them down – and step back for a bigger picture view when challenges crop up. Is someone just tired or hangry? Is this a big-deal life lesson situation or not a big deal?
As coaches, encouragement and words of affirmation might be the most important things we bring to the game. Sir Alex Ferguson, coach of Manchester United, believed in positivity with his coaching. According to him, “well done” are the two best words ever invented. American football coach Bill Parcells often told his players ‘I think you’re better than you think you are,’ because it was something his dad had said to him. Parcells said more players came back years later talking about the impact of that phrase than probably anything else he ever said or did.
Manchester United coach Ferguson also devoted a lot of time to just observing – noticing changes in his players’ habits or enthusiasm. He said he often could spot an injury before a player fully realized it just by watching. This is also part of our coaching role as parents. Unusual changes or new pain points should be something we notice and address with our kids to do our best to avoid bigger problems down the road.
When my sister was in junior high, my parents noticed she was choosing to spend more time with a different group of friends, some of whom weren’t making the best choices. It’s been 20 years, so I don’t remember exactly what my parents did, but I still remember they noticed and did something about it.
Bill Walsh, who took the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl wins, pushed back when other coaches preached brutal honest and directness. He wasn’t against these things across the board, but he felt they shouldn’t be a cover for insensitive comments that could drive wedges and create isolation. He believed the “bonding factor” between a coach and his players – the relationship – was his key to success.
I imagine the pre-teen and teen years have their fair share of conflict. I want to remember to put my relationship with my tween first during times when I need to let go of being right or winning. There are some areas where the line is firm or a broken rule requires a consequence, but in those other gray areas this is a coaching lesson I want to take to heart.
There are also a few other qualities I need to brush up on as I step into this coaching role:
- Be a good listener
This is SO hard sometimes. Especially for me, because I like talking a whole lot better than listening. But I’m getting better now that I know my own listening style and my kids’ styles. We explain more in our post Why You Need to Know Your Listening Style.
- Show consistent commitment to your values
I’ve been challenged here to make sure I know what my values really are so I can do this. My husband and I spent some time consciously choosing family values and those are the areas where we really try to focus on consistently showing up.
- Keep a positive attitude
Number 4 on the list of “Qualities of a Good Coach” used by the International Olympic Committee is being a motivator with a positive attitude and enthusiasm for the sport and the athletes. The winningest (is that really a word?) coach in men’s and women’s NCAA basketball history Pat Summitt listed attitude in her top life lessons and stressed that “attitude is a choice.” That phrase “When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” is certainly true in my house. My mood gets sprinkled like fairy dust over the entire household, so it makes home a much better place when I have a better attitude. This “I can” spirit is also one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Parents.
- Have fun
Former NFL coach Tony Dungy says “Fundamentals begin with ‘F U N’. Don’t take the fun out of it, otherwise you’re doing a disservice.” Have fun as a parent and make your house a fun place to be.
- Stay informed. Technology is ever-changing and it’s a very real part about parenting tweens. We rely a lot on Common Sense Media for help. And we’ve written our own guide for parents about ChatGPT.
Both younger kids were out of the house for an evening so we jumped on bikes and took a 14-mile round trip to get ice cream. Hooray for bigger kids with longer legs!
In the meantime, I’m enjoying getting to know these older kids of mine with their unique personalities and interests. These next few years will be some added work and a whole new kind of fun. I can’t wait.