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In their inimitable, candid style, Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese offer a variety of strategies for staying informed without resorting to snooping, eavesdropping, or other embarrassing KGB-like tactics. Within each of a child's six privacy zones—bedroom, friends, romance, school, body, and the Internet—Giannetti and Sagarese educate parents about common cover-ups and how to establish limits that enhance a spirit of mutual respect within the household. Exploring not just whether to worry, but how to go about getting honest answers, What Are You Doing in There? charts a course designed to instill maturity that will last well beyond the middler years.
The media constantly exhort parents to find out what the kids are really up to. Now there's finally a common-sense guidebook for addressing suspicions—without doing more harm than good.
"Knock Three Times Before You Enter"
My bedroom is on the third floor.
My mother broke her kneecap,
so now she can't come up.
Have you noticed this yet? One day your daughter is content sitting at the kitchen table doing schoolwork under your wing. Or your son parks himself nightly next to you, watching TV till bedtime. Then seemingly overnight, you notice your child is gone. Your son no longer shadows you. Your daughter spends nearly all free time in her bedroom. As children grow into adolescents, boys and girls gravitate away from family areas such as the den, living room, or finished basement and move into their bedrooms.
This change of routine is perfectly natural and normal. Parents, not middlers, often have a hard time adjusting. Human nature being what it is, many mothers' and fathers' knee-jerk reaction is to become suspect. A parent begins to ask: What are you doing in there? What's going on in there? Underneath is concern that something bad might be happening behind that closed door.
In our first book, The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle School Years, we prided ourselves on alerting parents to developmental milestones that ten- to fifteen-year-olds (as we coined this age group "middlers") experience. A major turning point is the emerging need for privacy. Around age twelve, children begin to think of themselves as having their own lives, apart from family. They hold their thoughts, feelings, and their relationships closer to their hearts. The child who once seemed to be an open book now closes the covers. As your child moves through early and into later adolescence, she is likely to share less information with you. You may even get the feeling that she is becoming downright secretive.
Keep in mind, though, that middlers grow at different rates. Some barely ten-year-olds bristle at every question you pose or comment you offer. "My parents try to give me a speech about everything," huffs a twelve-year-old boy from New Hampshire in our survey. And yet other fourteen-year-olds may still be telling you every detail about their daily lives without a prompt. Whether your child is nine or thirteen is irrelevant, though, because you will know when that need for privacy begins. How?
He will be spending more and more time away from you either with peers or hanging out in his room. Don't panic.
In this chapter, we'll tell you how to get inside your child's head, and inside his room, without having to resort to undercover tactics. Rather than seeing a child's room as a hostile bunker begging for a break-and-enter offensive, we will advise you how to make it over into a discovery zone. Therein lies information, evidence, and secrets. Our guidelines will show you how to effortlessly gather all the information you need in order to feel comfortable.
Getting to Know Your Way Around--Their Bedroom
As children move into double digits--ten, eleven, twelve--they covet control over their comings and goings. They seek independence. The bedroom becomes personal territory. Once upon a time, only a parent closed a child's door so a little one could nap without the disturbing noises of the family. During these years, it's your child who will be closing the door. A new knock etiquette comes into play. Entering without knocking is defined as "barging in." Even if your child isn't putting a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, you get the sense that you are not always welcome.
The changing of the guard at the bedroom door signals change. Your child is staking her claim for ownership over her bedroom. She wants you to observe her idea of the protocol. Protocol? Many of us aren't even aware of how we do enter our child's domain, much less that sensitivity is in order.
In our survey we ask ten- to fifteen-year-olds, "If your mother or father wanted to come into your room, how would they act?" Half (50 percent) reported their parents would come in without knocking. Mothers and fathers rated themselves far more considerate than their offspring rated them. Next time, knock.
When you do go into that room during these years, you will notice changes. The bedroom fills up with clutter. As children morph into adolescents, music scores the transition, loudly or silently inside headphones. Like all good parents, you want to get into this privacy zone because it is the latitude and longitude of what's happening inside your child. If you are like the majority, you make a huge mistake. You try to fight your way in.
Sidestep the Messy War Zone
Over the years, we quizzed parents to reflect on the biggest battleground they had faced with their adolescents. We offered a list of scenarios. Back talk? Unsavory friends? Drugs and alcohol? Messy room? The majority of parents confessed their child's messy room created the most fireworks.
The bedroom does indeed have the potential to become the universal battleground. The typical parental battle cry is "Clean that room." The usual retort is "It's MY room!" Or "Leave me alone." The operative words here are my and me. The right to be a packrat and live in a pigsty is vigorously defended. In the battle for independence that adolescents wage, control over the state of the bedroom is the prize.
Initially, the messy room controversy surprised us. In a world with the specter of AIDS and Ecstasy hovering, populated by tattooed punks and wild-childs with pierced bellybuttons and peeking thongs, where fresh-mouthed kids verbalize disrespect, why did unmade beds or strewn wrinkled clothing unhinge mothers and fathers so?
After searching the souls of parents and interviewing experts on early adolescence, we learned the messy room conflict is not really about dirty socks or discarded sweatshirts. It's deeper. It is about authority and discipline. When a child retreats into her own world and takes a stand, it feels threatening to a parent in the authority department. Some parents turn downright reactionary, resorting to I'm-the-boss mode, a recipe for instant and repeated argument. It's as if we fear if we give an inch, our children will steal a yard.
Avoid this trap. Take a deep breath here. Don't think pigsty or packrat even if those terms are on the tip of your tongue every time you glance into your child's doorway. If you see only disarray you are missing a more important perspective. If you remain bent on establishing your dictatorial order, you deny yourself a golden opportunity.
Think and Act like an Anthropologist
In the world of espionage, there is a term, humint. It stands for human intelligence, all the information that comes voluntarily from individuals versus data that is unearthed by devious means such as bugging phone lines or hacking into computers. Humint is a term and a tactic you can master.
Instead of focusing on discipline, we suggest you choose, literally, the discipline of anthropology. Why? Your child's room is actually a treasure trove, albeit a disorganized and disheveled one. Think of it as an archaeological dig. Greet it with curiosity. Treat all the contents therein with delicacy and respect. Okay, we can see visions of smelly Skechers and crumpled brown khakis dancing across your increasingly doubtful mind, but wait. The contents for better or worse hold the clues to who your child is, and is becoming. Anything (and everything) that intrigues or bores him exists within those four walls. They contain yesterday's cherished memories and tomorrow's dreams.
Take an inventory. There's the stuff of childhood. This may include Star War Legos or Barbies, action figures, board games, or baseball cards. Then there's the stuff pointing toward adolescence: cologne, bodybuilding or fan magazines, makeup, CD players, CDs that you swear are breeding. There may be assorted remnants of hobbies such as a musical instrument gathering dust, a microscope or telescope, ballet shoes, a mineral-collecting kit, or an ant farm. Add evidence of sports like cleats, hockey sticks, tennis rackets. Books, backpack, handheld Gameboys--you get the picture. No wonder there is no room to move, much less an easy way to arrange all this stuff.
Examine the walls. Do you see photographs, autographs, movie stubs, or concert backstage-pass decals?
The clean-freak gene in you wants to weed through all this, throw out childhood toys, discard the used soda cup from the hockey game or concert. Wait a minute. Could any of these hold sentimental value? Most do. Each says something of significance to your child and about him. If you fail to see the meaning of the artifacts, you are being insensitive to your child.
Realize your son or daughter still values the child within. These years are "in between" ones. Your child moves back and forth between childhood and adolescence with ambivalence from week to week, day to day, even hour to hour. You see this when your thirteen-year-old sucks on a lollipop while doing a complicated algebra equation. Your son squirms in front of a cartoon video game one minute, then the next minute wants you to take him to buy supplements so he can bulk up so as to be more attractive to girls. Most young adolescents are reluctant to let go of that childish self even as they race headlong into acting grown up. Let him decide when to cast aside the remnants of childhood.
Express interest in items around the room. Ask, "Why are you saving this movie stub?" Or "I see that you saved this soccer patch, wasn't that a great game!" Point to your child's CDs and inquire who his favorite artist is. Reminisce about which album you couldn't wait to buy at the record store even if she rolls her eyes as you mention Barry Manilow or David Cassidy. Or worse, if she dates you with a quip like "Paul McCartney, wasn't he in Wings?"
Ask her to play you her latest CD. Studies done on young adolescents show that listening to music is a solitary activity for most kids. If you can't understand the lyrics, ask to see the CD jacket. Music is the window to the soul of adolescents--always was and always will be. If this leads to debate, share opinions and, above all, listen.
Arrange a Room within a Room
When a testy preteen, paranoid about her privacy to begin with, has to share a bedroom, the conflict heats up.
"It's not my parents driving me crazy, it's my brother," seethed an eleven-year-old boy in one of our focus groups. His frustration-edged remark unleashed a firestorm of similar complaints from the others sitting cross-legged in a circle. Oh, how they counted the sibling invasions: "helping herself to my CDs," and "stealing my clothes out of my closet and using my makeup"; "teasing comments," "reading my e-mails."
One thirteen-year-old we talked to complained about a situation even worse. "How'd you like to share your bedroom with a stranger?" That's exactly what happens when families blend. A teen finds himself bunking with a stepbrother or a stepsister. Add loyalty conflicts, jealousy, and annoyance over being shuttled between households.
Sibling snafus are everyday experiences in families and stepfamilies with children close in age. Moving to a bigger house where each child gets a bedroom isn't realistic for most families. Short of that, though, there are things a parent can do.
Acknowledge your child's desire for privacy. See things from her perspective. Younger children are pesky, at least some of the time. Take her aside and ask her to tell you what behaviors irk her the most. You can't exile a brother or sister to the cellar or attic, but you can create boundaries in their behavior department. "Don't take your sister's stuff without asking permission." After that powwow, take aside the younger child and explain what is off-limits, whether it's the CD collection or something else. Both parties need to be handled with finesse. A younger child feeling rejected benefits from your explaining why his older brother or sister suddenly finds him "repugnant." The preteen relishes being treated more grown up and having you act on his behalf.
Discuss territorial claims. Stepfamilies and blended families require sensitivity. Territorial battles are common. While easy solutions rarely exist, patience and commiseration can go a long way to making all young adolescent and younger parties feel better.
Allow a young adolescent time alone in her bedroom at least some of the time. When she has friends over, keep the younger ones occupied elsewhere.
Design the layout of the shared bedroom to allot each child space. Divvy up the closet or the bureau drawers. Hang shelving for each.
Empower Your Child to Create a Sanctuary
If it's occurred to you that the Mickey Mouse decals in your middlers' room no longer suit them, you are not alone. They've outgrown Noah's Ark, cartoon characters, unicorns, or fairy-tale bed sheets. First time around, designing the bedroom space fell into your domain. This time give the revamping job to your children. Shelve your ideas; rely on their ideas instead. A bedroom should be akin to an artist's canvas: expressive, comforting, and stimulating.
Expressive: One of the main questions with which young adolescents grapple is "Who am I?" The tween years is the time for kids to figure out the answer. The toys, books, wall hangings, calendars, music, mysterious minutiae, and other stuff chosen are all pieces to this puzzle. They define identity. Experts insist that's why ten- to fifteen-year-olds become collectors in the first place. They amass and experiment in the quest to establish a self. One year it's wrestling for him or field hockey for her; next year those are passe. Boys and girls dress as jocks or preppies, skateboarders or freaks to define their social memberships. They move in and out of persons, as they search for one that feels right.
Watching a child dive into a passion for the saxophone, and then never want to practice (after you've paid dearly for the rental or purchase of said instrument) is annoying. You may even feel as if you've raised a quitter. Keep in mind that a short attention span to certain things--activities, hobbies, interests--is typical. What counts is encouraging a child to explore. These are the years when skills develop. Middle schools characteristically offer many clubs and after-school activities because they want to give middlers opportunities to try out as many things as possible--chorus, photography, theater, sports, volunteerism, and so forth. At home your job is to continue the theme of exploration.
Your child's room should be his own individual petri dish where he dabbles in as much as possible. Think of it as his cocoon.
Comforting: Did your child once cuddle a special blanket? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin verified that children's special blankets had the same magical powers as Mommy during doctor visits. After studying sixty-four children, they found that blankets known to be attached emotionally to the boys and girls in the experiment appeared to lessen their anxiety in the doctor's office as much as a mother's presence. "Blankies" are magic.