Have you ever done any of the following things: driven your child’s forgotten homework to school? Brought them the lunch they neglected to pack themselves? Softened a well-deserved punishment because you felt bad for him/ her? Backtracked on promised consequences for poor behaviour or disrespect? Ignored a broken rule because you just didn’t want to get into an argument with them?

If so, you’re guilty of trying to make them happy. And you were almost certainly wrong.

At a school meeting last year, my daughters’ elementary school principal made a very compelling argument. She said that all parents want to make their kids happy, but they are often shortsighted. We don’t need them to necessarily be happy today. Or right now. Especially if they’ve done something wrong.

Instead, we need to take the long view. Ultimately, we want them to be happy adults: contented, well-adjusted people taking their rightful place in our communities. We want them to be reasonably successful in the career of their choice, surrounded by people with whom they belong and share love.

But right now? Today? This morning, when they realized they hadn’t pulled their school uniform top out of the dryer like you asked, and it was all wrinkled and they wanted you to iron it? When they left their gym uniform at home the day of soccer tryouts? When they started a fight with their little sister or asked you to buy them the really cool jeans that everyone is wearing, even though it’s really not in the budget?

They don’t need that kind of happy. You are, in fact, doing them a long-term disservice by saving their butts, hovering over and rescuing them, swooping in to cover responsibilities that should rightly be their own. Protecting them from negative consequences to their own actions. Ignoring rude, disrespectful or anti-social behaviour. Spoiling them with consumer items they don’t really need, especially if they cause financial strain. If you never say “no.”

That’s not real happy anyway (though you could be forgiven for thinking it is when their eyes light up at the sight of those jeans or hand-delivered homework). It’s not the kind of lasting, grounded happiness that they will want as adults. The kind of well-earned, well-deserved happiness that comes from knowing your responsibilities.

What’s more, these attempts to make them happy all the time now when they are younger, is more likely to work against what should be your ultimate goal: turning them into happy, responsible, capable adults. To do that, they need to learn some hard, cause and effect lessons when they are young.

Western culture defines happiness in curious ways, usually around acquisition and consumption of goods, ease of living, always having to “feel good.” But the science of happiness (yes, there is such a thing) tells us that happiness is an innate quality, a way of looking at the world, generally independent of the things around us (with the exception of extreme poverty and deprivation). The most important correlates for happy people were close ties with friends and/or family. A study of lottery winners and accident victims left paralyzed found that, while both groups experienced temporary swings in their levels of happiness based on their dramatic change of circumstances, within a few months both groups returned to their baseline levels of happiness.

We need to resist the constant pressure to be happy at all costs. Another interesting piece of research suggests that the constant emphasis on needing to feel good is a risk factor for drug and alcohol addiction among teens. Behaviours like drug use, drinking alcohol, sex and gambling have a chemical payoff, at least in the short-term. But they quickly need more and more of whatever it is to get the same high, and therein lies the dark spiral of addiction.

So even though it can be really hard as a parent to imagine your kid missing lunch at school, getting in trouble for not having their homework, or missing a night out with friends because their behaviour at the family dinner table was inexcusable, you are actually doing them a tremendous favour.

Steel your resolve. That unhappy teenager may well thank you for it in 20 years.

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8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a day I knew I’d never forget.

My two-year-old twins were heading off for their very first day of preschool. They had their lunches packed, the backpacks full of extra clothes, wipes and smocks for painting. I was more emotionally wound up than they were, and I was almost disappointed when they just kissed me goodbye, and walked hand in hand into their very first day of school.

The only tears were my own, and I desperately, sheepishly blinked them back. There were no pudgy arms clutching at my legs, no high little girl voices begging me to take them home. I was proud of their determination, but not quite used to the idea that my baby girls might be growing up.

I got in my car, a tangle of conflicted emotions, and turned on the radio.

It was 9 a.m. September 11, 2001.

When the first reports of trouble in New York trickled in, I didn’t think much of it, preoccupied as I was by my own microdrama. Then the  announcer mentioned the World Trade Center, and I thought about my brother, whose law firm was in the process of moving their offices into one of the towers. I called my mom, who hadn’t heard anything. She couldn’t reach his cellphone, but we weren’t yet alarmed.

I stopped for coffee with a friend, asking the teenage barista to turn the radio over to CBC, and we stared at each other in horror as news of a second plane hitting the towers was reported. I ran home to keep trying to reach my brother. No answer. Cellphone service was in chaos.

Like everyone I knew, I watched the world implode upon a TV screen. I couldn’t breathe. The sheer scale of hatred, of callousness, of remorseless cruelty was astonishing. It was impossible that this destruction, this pain was being played out live on camera. It was unthinkable that we had to just sit there and watch. But we did. We couldn’t turn away even when the images burned into our eyes, seared themselves into our minds.

We were witnesses to the murders; our very witnessing the catalyst for it happening. A spectacle laid out in living colour for the hungry eyes of our cameras.

It took a couple of hours to track down my brother. His firm’s move had been postponed because of construction delays. Only a few people had been moved over to the World Trade Center that morning; one woman from their office died.

My daughters have an uncle today because of construction delays. They have three cousins. Construction delays.

I remember thinking, with typical shortsightedness, how lucky I was to have children too young to understand what was happening. Two-year-olds don’t watch the news or scan the front page of the newspaper in a daily race for the weather and comics. I was almost giddy with relief. How on earth could a parent ever explain this to a child?

I forgot that they wouldn’t be two forever. That I would have to explain over and over again as they grew how such a thing could happen. Their innocence waning as their capacity to comprehend expanded. Every time we saw a picture of the towers. Heard about the memorials. Each time we visited New York City.

Every September.

I didn’t realize that I would have to give answers to unanswerable questions. To the two-year-olds who are now 12. To their little sister, whose very existence I hadn’t even foreseen that morning ten years ago. To my future grandchildren.

We will be searching for those answers for many, many years. Forever. Like the Holocaust, and Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and Tiananmen Square, but newer and closer and fresher. With really good production values.

Teaching our kids about the grim side of human nature is never an easy thing to do. In the olden days we had dark inflections to our nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We had cradles that fell and witches in the woods who ate errant children, desperate girls who cut off their toes to fit the prince’s glass slipper.

We don’t do that anymore. We’ve scrubbed our stories, sanitizing the imaginary preschool world the same way we Purell their little hands. Have you ever watched the original Disney versions of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty? Tiana and Arielle wouldn’t last a day in their world.

When natural disasters occur and people die, we can point to the arbitrary and unpredictable whims of nature. It’s upsetting, but somehow we feel we can contain our children’s fears through education and action. But terrorism, war, mass murder, school massacres? That’s a whole other story.

I wish I could say I have the answers here, but I don’t. The truth is, I still don’t know what to say to my girls about September 11th. I tried to dole out the nuggets of information sparingly when they were younger, offered some context as they got older and learned more on their own. But I knew some time ago that I couldn’t protect them from knowing any more. And I shouldn’t. The plump, smiling toddlers smiling innocently into the camera at the exact moment the first plane fell out of the sky have morphed into tall, lithe preteens. They cringe and reluctantly agree when I ask to take their picture on the first day of high school.

I can only hold them close as long as they let me and hope they get more from remembering that day than the fear and hatred that made it possible in the first place.

Enjoying a bit of time outdoors, with no screens, phones or digital music. Lovely.

Thinking a lot about transitions lately. Kids starting high school. Friends and family members sending their little ones off to kindergarten for the first time. Everyone dealing with change in their own particular ways, sometimes with sentiment, sometimes with stoicism.

There’s a particular kind of energy at the start of the school year. Maybe it’s the new shoes, freshly pressed uniforms, shiny new notebooks and clean lunchboxes. No one has been overloaded with homework yet, or received a low mark on a test, or forgotten an assignment. Teachers are still rested from their summer breaks, exercising patience in the face of disruption or sloth. Students are still trying hard to fit in, follow the rules, organize all those lovely new binders and stiff-tipped markers. Taking the bus home is still a novelty, not a chore.

But these changes also bring a kind of stress with them, particularly the ones that involve new schools, new routines, new friends. Students can find it exhausting to hold it together all day, and then fall apart a bit at home at the end of the day, where they feel safe. Parents are trying to deal with their own issues, whether they are work-related or the bittersweet business of watching your child grow up just a little bit more.

Teens tend to process these stresses in much more emotional ways. We can’t just blame this one hormones either. Researchers studying brain scans of adolescents have demonstrated repeatedly that adolescent responses to difficult decisions are guided primarily by the limbic system (responsible for emotion) and not the prefrontal cortex (responsible for judgement and decision-making). Teens are at the mercy of their emotions.

Which explains why they might burst into tears if you ask them whether they’ve decided to try out for the school basketball team. Or why they stomp off in a huff if you suggest their skirt might be a bit short.

As parents it can be hard not to mix our own emotions about the milestones in our children’s lives. We try to stay on an even keel emotionally, exercise logic where they cannot. But when they show their unhappiness, their worry or stress, it’s hard to stay rational. My aunt once told me that parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and I believe that is mostly true.

Turns out, there’s now scientific justification for this. A professor at the University of Austin in Texas has looked at the health and happiness of middle aged parents (40-60 years old) based on the happiness of their children, and found that the distress of one child can have a marked effect on the parent’s well-being.

Parents said that the distress of one child makes them empathize with their problems, question their parenting ability, place excessive demands on their child, or cause strain in the family’s relationships. They also found that the success of one child isn’t enough to overshadow the problems of another – people don’t just write the problems off as a fluke, but tend to focus in one them.

They also found that having more than one child can make parents happier – provided no one is dealing with any substantive problems. In which case, the parents are more miserable. Child successes didn’t have to be major either – just being generally happy personally and professionally was enough.

So what does this mean for us as parents of teens? On the one hand, it’s important to recognize our kids’ emotional responses to things are partly the result of biology, and not necessarily accurate gauges for their overall happiness. On the other hand, it means we need to maintain open links of communication with them, to help them negotiate any real problems or issues in their lives. And finally, it means we have to help them — and us — focus on the things that make us happy: a hobby, a friend, a sport, a new skill acquired.

Not always easy to do, but worth remembering. Because when the new shoes are scuffed, and the new notebooks are dog-eared and covered in doodles, we need to reach back and hold on to the enthusiasm and energy of these first bright days.

It’s easy — and a little unfair — to prepare a stereotypical list of unpleasant teen behaviours: moodiness, surliness, disrespect, dramatic changes in sleeping patterns, eating patterns and relationships with other family members. We expect them to blow off their chores, roll their eyes at family activities, spend all their time online and on cellphones and listen to music we parents find discordant, inappropriate or offensive. It’s almost as if in steeling ourselves for battles to come, we expect them to fight us on the clothes they wear, the friends they chose, and how late they get to stay out at night.

But not all teens are like that. Most of them (most of the time) are loving parts of their families, good big sisters and brothers and concerned about their communities and the world around them. But the caricatures of teenagers tend to dominate in the popular imagination, and can blind us to all of the wonderful ways our teens enrich our lives.

That’s my standard response whenever I discuss signs and symptoms of real teen problems with groups of parents. The lists of red flags can sound a lot like the behaviours described above. Has your teen gained weight? Lost weight? Been listless? Have their friends changed? Have they withdrawn into their rooms? There’s always one parent who voices the concern that these sound like pretty typical teen behaviours.

And they are.

But a teen at serious risk for depression, drug or alcohol problems tends to have more than one of these things, and there is a pattern of marked decline, and usually more than one or two instances of emotional outbursts or slammed doors.

So when should you worry? Sometimes things do go wrong. The following types of behaviours warrant immediate investigation:

*money going missing around the house without satisfactory explanation;

*pattern of lying about whereabouts and activities;

*aggression, hostility, irritability;

*pattern of withdrawal;

*rapid weight loss;

*wearing of long sleeves in warm weather (a sign of non-suicidal self-mutilation);

*sudden drop in grades (not just one lousy mark);

*unexplained absences at school/ work;

*sudden trouble with headaches;

*rapid increase in muscle definition or sudden dramatic increase in acne (a sign of steroid use);

*loss of interest in activities;

*extreme, persistent fatigue lasting more than a couple of days;

*sudden change in personal hygiene – unkempt appearance, lack of washing;

*sudden use of new slang or jargon related to drugs or gambling;

*speculation or fascination with death/ suicide.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the more worrisome signs, particularly if there are more than one.

So what do you do as a parent? First, speak to your child. If you are still concerned, speak to their doctor. Call the school guidance counsellor. Call a therapist who specializes in teens. Call your CLSC if you live in Quebec.

If you are concerned your teen might be an immediate danger to yourself or others, take them right away to the emergency department of a children’s hospital. Here in Montreal, there is a psychiatrist on call at the Montreal Children’s Hospital 24 hours a day who can do an emergency assessment. Be aware that in Quebec the age of medical consent is 14, so you may not be privy to their discussion.

Some other excellent resources:

http://teens.drugabuse.gov/index.php

http://www.adolescent-substance-abuse.com/signs-drug-use.html

www.youthgambling.com

http://www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=3-1036

http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx

 

 

 

 

 

This morning, my 12-year-old twins had their very first morning of high school. My youngest would be starting third grade if it weren’t for the fact that she had a really high fever last night (score an extra day of summer for her, an extra day of childcare for me).

Like many families, we are in serious back-to-school mode. Supplies, uniforms, clothing and new shoes have been purchased. Items have been labelled. Student bus passes are ready to go. Desks have been organized. Backpacks are packed.

It’s a lot of work, and a fair bit of expense. But it’s also very exciting, a time to reflect on transitions and growing up. It’s made me think about the kind of parent I want to be to my kids, especially now that they are entering their teenage years.

So I’ve come up with a list of back-to-school resolutions. My intentions are good, but my will and patience are not perfect, so I fully intend these more as a set of self-imposed guidelines, and not an iron-clad code. I find it useful to have these kind of things to look up to, especially in the darker moments of parenting (and we all know what those are like!).

Know when to say no, and when to say nothing. Sometimes the word “No” has to be enough. I don’t have to justify all of my parenting decisions to my kids, and what passes for explanation is really their attempt to negotiation. If I think those shorts are too short, or they are too young for a school dance, or they’ve been Skyping for too long, that’s all I need to say.

Conversely, sometimes I need to bite my tongue. They don’t need to hear my opinion of everything. They don’t always want to know what it was like when I was 12 (really? That’s a shocker). I don’t need to pass along my issues from adolescence. This is their turn.

Take advantage of natural consequences, when appropriate. I’m a big fan of Barbara Coloroso. When my kids were toddlers, I went to hear her speak, and was particularly impressed by her adamant insistence on kids learning things for themselves. As long as it isn’t immoral, illegal or unhealthy, they’ll learn more from their own mistakes than our rules or lectures.

Let them go outside without their jacket and realize how cold it is.  Let them goof off instead of studying for a test and get a bad mark. Let them forget their lunch and go hungry for one day. It may sound harsh, but none of those things are immoral, illegal or unhealthy. The stakes aren’t particularly high and the consequences are tolerable and contained. If we do everything for our kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. And we are reduced to shrill, nagging parents. Sure, if any of these things become more than one-off problems, we need to step in with guidance and supervision, but most kids, most of the time, will quickly learn their lesson.  (Another amazing parenting book with this philosophy is The Blessing of a B Minus, by Wendy Mogel).

Set firm boundaries for technology use. How much screen time total can you (and they) tolerate. At what point does it eat into their time for exercise, family interrelationships, homework, sleep? A recent study found that one-third of American teens sleep with their cellphones by their bedside or under their pillows, and text well after their bedtimes. Many said they set the phones to vibrate so they will wake them without alerting their parents. Phones, laptops, iPads should all be outside of their bedrooms when they go to sleep. Teens already have enough issues with sleep without this extra distraction.

Get them to eat breakfast. This is one of the hardest pledges to keep. My older girls are simply not hungry in the morning. They feign nausea at the mere sight of food. Chalk it up to their adolescent circadian rhythms or their natural metabolisms, but I struggle to get anything into them at all. Going to school hungry pretty much guarantees a lack of energy and focus for the first couple of hours, so that’s no OK. We’ve tried smoothies, Greek yogurt, cereal.

Out of desperation, I’ve given up on my usual insistence on whole-grains, no high fructose corn syrup or refined sugars. I find myself buying the crappy processed crap that used to make me all self-righteous at the grocery store, like “What kind of parent would serve that to their precious children?”

Me, that’s who.

At this point, even Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes are looking pretty good. If they want pizza or a chicken sandwich, fine. My minimum requirement is a glass of orange juice or chocolate milk and a cereal bar.

So that’s what I’ve come up with for now. I’m sure I will stumble a few times (feel free to call me on it, but remember that thing about people living in glass houses…). I’m sure there will be more pledges necessary. What resolutions do you make in your household?

 

“Dinnertime!”

[beat]

[louder] “Dinner’s on the table. Come down now.”

[beat]

[shouting] if you don’t come down now, you aren’t getting dinner and the kitchen is closed till tomorrow morning!”

I am the very model of effective parenting.

Why would they even listen to me the first time, since they know I will repeat myself 3 times? They can get in a whole other level of Angry Birds or use that time to post something witty and misspelled on Facebook.

But I have a new tool now, one that has revolutionized family communication in our household.

My older girls now have their own cellphones, in anticipation of the new freedom that comes with high school and the use of public transportation to get them around town.

I text “Dnnrs on the tbl” (if you don’t use texting spelling, you can hear the eye rolling from the basement. It’s epic. I have been questioning the point of all those years of spelling workbooks and quizzes. But I digress.)

I hear giggles. They’ve heard me. There is movement upstairs. The graceful stomping of two pairs of 12-year-old feet on the stairs.

And through some form of cellular magic, here they are. In our kitchen. Dinner is still hot. I have not had to issue any more empty threats.

Not two bites into dinner, the vibrating starts. The ringing and buzzing and whirring of customized tones.

They have been contacting every person they’ve ever met to exchange phone numbers.

My husband tells them that phones must be off during mealtimes.

Sigh. The rules come flying out of thin air.

When they were 8, they got their first iPods (little Shuffles). They tuned out in the car, upstairs in their rooms. I worried about how it cut them off from the family.

Then they got Nintendo DS’s. Same thing, but much worse. The games sucked them in. They ran restaurant kitchens, designed zoos and ran ultrasounds on virtual farm animals when we used to talk or look out the windows together. They trained their digital dogs while their real dog lay unwalked at their feet.

More rules.

Then the iPod Nanos entered our lives, effectively rendering meaningless the no TV policy in our family car (I thought I was so clever). they carried their movies and Wizards of Waverly Place around with them on tiny screens.

Then the iPads arrived last spring. Portable email, Facebook and Skype.

But the cellphone is the epitome of digital distractions, the ne plus ultra of mobile communications when you are 12 years old.

I am beginning to realize that the rules have to be made up as we go.

Parenting in the new millenium – these is the kind of question no one needed to ask ten years ago.

There were fewer grey areas in the student-teacher relationship back then. Exchanging telephone numbers was clearly inappropriate. A thank you note dropped in the office mailbox was fine, as was waving hello in the local shopping mall food court. Aside from the occasional incident or rumour, it was pretty straightforward.

Social media changed things. It blurred the conventional methods of communication, making everything seem much less formal.  These new rules weren’t written yet, and relying on common sense wasn’t always particularly helpful but people mostly seemed to figure it out. Or maybe not.

A new law passed in Missouri makes it illegal for teachers to be friends with their students on any social network that allows private communication. This would include Facebook or Twitter. The idea behind the law, quite predictably, is to protect children and teens from predatory adults, but critics worry the law might actually prevent kids at risk from reaching out to trusted adults who could actually offer support.

It seems to me this is actually a much more complicated issue than the panicky rhetoric indicates. I never friended my students when I was a university faculty member, not because I worried about any risk I might pose to them or they to me, but because there are still meaningful divides between our private lives and our public lives. I didn’t need them to see my posts and photos of my kids any more than I wanted to know more than they cared to share in class or in conversation about their relationship woes, parties or trips to New York.

As my kids would say, it’s a case of TMI (too much information).

I don’t think I’m being naive or old-fashioned when I say that line between public and private is still meaningful. The line itself may shift with the times, but it’s still important, whether it’s between adults in a college classroom or kids and teachers in a high school. I had no issues with being contacts on LinkedIn (they were young adults counting on me for professional references, after all) or using email and the telephone to keep in touch. And after the semesters ended and students moved on, there were always a few who kept in touch and gradually crossed the line towards friendship.

But I don’t know many teachers of children and teens who cross that line. And I worry about making these things into confusing new laws. The Missouri bill specifically bans teachers from friending current and former students – does that mean students who’ve graduated are always off-limits? Can’t we just assume that most teachers and most parents will be on top of this? We never legislated teachers phoning their students’ cell phones. We haven’t worried about them texting each other. We didn’t make it illegal for them to send each other holiday cards (though I’m guessing few ever do).

So no, I don’t think your teen should be Facebook friends with their teachers, for all of these reasons and more. This should be a part of every school and school board’s media policy.  And general common sense about this would benefit from discussion and awareness-raising. This is a case where the adults involved really should know better. After all, they are protecting both themselves and their students.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, whatever your perspective. Feel free to comment here or message me directly.

The back-to-school countdown in our house starts about two weeks before the first day of school.

This is roughly when the schools send out their information about class lists, hot lunch programs and school supplies. It’s usually a week or two after our annual mid-summer camping trip, and once we’ve finished washing, folding and putting away all those items, my mind begins to drift forward to the next set of looming responsibilities.

We try very, very hard not to let the impending start of school ruin the last bit of summer, but it can be hard. Our main strategy is to plan some really fun, special activities with friends, like amusement parks or waterslides. Trips to the farmer’s market. Dinner in Chinatown. Also some sleeping in, lazing around in pyjamas and swimming in the lake after dark.

Now that my older girls are preteens, I also make a real effort to get in some one-on-one time with them. When you have more than one child, it’s so easy to group them into neat categories. I often pair the twins together, because they are so easy-going and can seem very similar in their likes and dislikes. But they have very distinct personalities despite their identical genetic profiles, and really need to have that uniqueness validated. And my youngest assumes the role of the family fireball, grabbing the spotlight and thriving in it, but she is also so much more than that, and has different relationships with each of her sisters.

When you’re parenting, the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. We need to see past the labels, the thumbnail summaries, the established patterns.

This week I’ve taken advantage of the August downtime to host an 80’s teen film festival with a couple of their friends. First they watched Sixteen Candles, then The Breakfast Club. Since they are so enthusiastic, I’ve got Say Anything for tonight (“Mom, why is he holding that huge box radio over his head?” Try and explain ghetto blasters to the iPod generation!).

The reason I’m mentioning this is that I was once again by struck by that resonant line of narration from The Breakfast Club, “We think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”

The lovely twist to that film, of course, was that the characters (the jock, the brain, the criminal, the princess, the basket case) come to realize they saw themselves and each other that way as well, exactly like the adults who just don’t get it. In that one magic day of detention, they learn that they each have a bit of each other in themselves.

People are complicated. Multifaceted. It may not seem like rocket science, but this is one of the bigger revelations of growing up and it’s a familiar theme in young adult fiction of all kinds.

Seeing this movie again made me think about how hard we need to try to see beyond the labels. Especially in preteens and teens who are growing and changing every day, who struggle to see themselves as simultaneously similar to everyone else and unique individuals. We need to give them room to surprise us, to defy expectations, to be anomalies, contradictions. To try on different hats.

In these stories (and many other kinds of YA fiction), adults are generally depicted as one-dimensional, disconnected characters, incapable of comprehending the angst and emotional turmoil of the teens around them. They are stuck in their own adult funks, driven by their own agendas and the teens need to figure everything out on their own. Makes me think of incoherent voices of all the grown-ups in the Charlie Brown cartoons. I understand how this is a convenient plot device, and I also get why this disconnect would resonate with teens, but I see it as a challenge to go beyond. We need to work very hard to maintain that dialogue with our kids. Leave our agendas aside as much as possible. Listen instead of lecturing.

So in the last few days of summer, I’m going to spend as much time as possible with each of my three girls one-on-one, letting them pick the activities and drive the conversation. As they head off to start their own high school memories with friends they haven’t yet met, I’m going to challenge myself — and them — to look beyond the surface and let them talk about whatever crosses their minds.

As challenges go, this one is also a privilege. I’m really looking forward to it.

Immediate. Spontaneous. Concurrent.

Everything in real-time. In order to understand how our kids experience the world, we need to understand this real-time reflex.

Real time in media isn’t a terribly new idea. Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1949), 12 Angry Men (1957), and the amazing Run Lola Run (1998) follow events they occur in the same time frame as the movie. It’s a technique also seen recently in television shows like 24 and Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals. You see it in YouTube videos, video games (such as Prince of Persia, Animal Crossing, Nintendogs).

But beyond mere entertainment, real-time means we’ve become accustomed to using our media as a literal window on the world. We think nothing of news that shows us things as they are happening: wars, revolutions, natural disasters and political intrigue. We demand — and expect — access to our politicians and celebrities on a constant, regular and intimate basis. We put regular folks with conveniently placed cellphone cameras who happen to be in the right place in the right time on the same par as CNN journalists. We’ve also turned the camera back on the Internet itself, watching the conversations people are having online into news (see CBSNews’ What’s Trending)

Our kids are growing up in a world where the minutiae of the everyday is blogged and posted on Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare. They know what their friends had for breakfast, where they are at this very minute and whether they are having a fight with their boyfriend. We adults may complain and worry about how this redefines privacy and trivializes intimacy, but that’s a moot point for them. This is the new normal.

Immediacy also means they see their pictures as soon as they take them, and have them instantly uploaded on their preferred social media tool. It means they know their SAT scores and marks as quickly as possible. It means that when they gamble, they prefer quick rounds of poker or scratch lottery cards to those weekly draws. It means that shopping has become a social media experience (check out Pose, Where to Get It and VIZL).

The real-time reflex means social interaction gets pared down to its bare bones. We used to accept a phone call in place of a formal face-to-face meeting as a time saver. Then email whittled down the social niceties of a phone call or formal letter even further. But our kids don’t often waste their time on emails or phone calls – everything is reduced to the shorthand of a text message. No greetings or sign-offs. No signatures or “how are you’s?” Just “lmk” and “ttyl” and “lmao.”

This isn’t meant as a critique, but simply an observation. It helps us understand how to parent and teach our kids more effectively. We don’t always have to adapt to this real-time reflex, but it can help us understand the cadence of their daily lives. You might you get faster and more helpful messages from your teen about where they are and what they are doing if you text them instead of calling their cellphones. And you might gain some insight into their stressors and anxieties by understanding how their lives are played out in real-time on social media.