Editor’s Note: We first published Lisa Rizzo’s three poems, Childhood, Daughters, and Uneasy Grace at The Fertile Source in the fall of 2011 as well as an interview, Celebrating the Foregoing of Motherhood: Poetry in the Service of Spiritual Quandary, Lineage, and Teaching Adolescents. I caught up again with Lisa at the Summer 2013 A Room of Her Own Foundation retreat where we found ourselves surrounded by women who were teachers, writers, mothers, or various combinations of the above. I overheard Lisa talking about the parallels between parenting and teaching and couldn’t help but ask her if she’d write us a guest post along the topic. Enjoy–Tania Pryputniewicz
Advice for New Parents of Adolescents: What Twenty-Two Years of Middle School Has Taught Me
by Lisa Rizzo
“He used to be such a nice little boy!” That lament voiced by a student’s mother at a Back to School Night presentation has stuck in my mind for years. I can even remember the student’s name although he must be almost 30 years old by now. As a middle school teacher with 22 years of teaching experience, I have heard a variation of that parental cry many times.
With no children of my own, I have always hesitated to offer advice to the my students’ parents, but when my own beloved niece turned twelve, my brother and sister-in-law turned to me for help. That is when I realized that as a veteran teacher who has spent over two decades in a classroom with thousands of twelve and thirteen-year-olds, maybe I can offer some advice to mothers facing an adolescent child for the first time. And as a writer who struggles to balance writing with my very stressful job, I can sympathize with mother-writers who have an even harder balancing act. So my first rule is:
Keep your sense of humor.
This may seem obvious to mothers who have had a child in their lives for eleven years. However, when adolescence hits, it definitely gets harder to remember. After all, when your newly adolescent child suddenly begins zinging you with comments that wound you to the core, who wants to laugh? Because that is what those sharp words are designed to do: your growing-up wants to see just how far she can go with you. She’s testing the boundaries of her world, to see how much power she has over the people who have the most control in her world. That’s you and me: mom and teacher.
If it makes you feel any better, know that as a teacher of these wonderful little humans I get the same treatment – only not from one but 30 of them at a time. The eye rolling, slouching posture, refusal to face me, the exasperated sigh, angry outbursts. You know what I’m talking about. I’ve had students tell me my class is boring, they hate being there, I’m mean, cold, unfair. I’ve intercepted notes that make fun of my appearance, my age, my clothes. I have had to develop a thick skin and learn to laugh at it all.
And before you think I have superhuman strength, know that I often have to pretend that I am not hurt, even though inside I smart from some particularly well-aimed barb. I’m not telling you to ignore this kind of behavior, but I think being able to joke about it with your child can sometimes defuse the situation. By saying, “Go ahead, roll your eyes. I know you’re mad. Now do what I told you to do,” can sometimes get us farther than trying to reason with them or getting angry. Not always, but sometimes it works.
However, there is a limit to laughing something off: if your son or daughter says something particularly hurtful or offensive, I think they should be called on it. One of the best teachers I’ve ever known, the woman who mentored me as a young teacher, would tell students to their faces, “You hurt my feelings.” Not in a classroom in front of the other students, but privately. Witnessing this, I could see realization dawn on them that this adult actually had feelings. Sometimes adolescents are so wound up in their own inner turmoil that they forget this. This may start an argument, or another bout of disgusted sighs. That’s when it’s important to remember to:
Keep your consistency.
I know this is parenting 101, but as children get older, sometimes we may feel we don’t need this as much. Or as mothers and teachers, we just get tired. We both know being consistent is often the hardest thing to do. We lay down the law, we tell a kid that if he does A, we are going to do B. When he does A, we don’t really want to do B because really we just said that in a fit of anger. Or we start to enforce the rule and they wheedle until we give in because it seems easier than fighting them.
This is a big mistake with adolescents. I implore you: Don’t let them get you! They have to know when we say we are going to do something – either good or bad – that we mean it. They are just waiting for that moment of weakness that will let they can do whatever they want! We have to stand firm. This is when we have to remember the humor I talked about — because this is when the fights come along with the eye-rolling and all the other adolescent tricks.
I know you get tired. I get tired of this as well. But we need to make a pact to do this in spite of our exhaustion. It’s our job. Which brings me to this last piece of advice:
Keep something for yourself.
As women we are trained to care for others, often at the expense to ourselves. You became a mother because you wanted to raise a child, to give of yourself so that child could grow up to be a wonderful human being. I became a teacher because I wanted to help give your children the education they need to become successful, well-rounded adults. As we both know, these two jobs are the most important in the world, but also the most all-consuming. In giving to the children in our care, we too often forget about ourselves. We feel guilty if we don’t always put them first. We can’t keep thinking this way. I’m talking to myself as well as to you. You need to make sure to carve out time for yourself, to take care of yourself.
I know you’re thinking, how and when do I do that? That is a question you will have to answer for yourself. It is the question I’ve asked of myself for my entire teaching career. I have spent many long teaching days without writing a single word. I tried writing after school, but found I was so mentally drained that I had no energy. I’ve tried waiting for the weekend and then found I had trouble making myself get back to my desk. None of it seemed to work.
Just recently I decided that the only way I was going to keep both my writer and teacher selves going in tandem was to get up early each morning. I had resisted this idea for years: I hate getting up early and I hate going to bed early to ensure I get enough sleep. But I was desperate. So far this has worked. Today I even got up before the alarm.
I have had many surprises in this new regime of mine. First of all, I have never believed I could do this every day – and welcome it! But the most surprising result, one I never expected has been in my teaching; I actually have a more positive attitude and more fortitude in facing the challenges of the school day. Instead of making me too tired to deal with my students, it has actually given me more resilience, which helps me keep my sense of humor and energy to stay consistent.
I also garnered an unexpected added bonus: the so-called teachable moment. When trying to convince my eighth graders that they needed to set goals for themselves beyond reaching level 55 of whatever game they are tackling at the moment, I used myself as an example. Even the student who feigns the least interest in my class wants to hear about what I’ve been doing. So, talking to your child about your goals and what you hope to accomplish may open the door to more communication with her. And, if she won’t talk to you right now, you can bet she is listening whether she will admit it or not. They always hear everything we say – as long as we aren’t telling them to take out the garbage or do their homework.
Instead of feeling guilty about taking time out for yourself – or in spite of feeling guilty – remember that you are showing your young person what it means to work hard to fulfill a passion for your life. Show your son or daughter that you value yourself as much as you value them. It’s one of the best lessons they will ever learn. And unlike the middle school teacher who may never know exactly how much she affected the lives of her students, you have the chance to watch your child grow to become a happy, productive adult.
Lisa Rizzo is a poet and middle school language arts teacher who manages to combine her love of words and poetry with her day job. Born in Texas, she grew up in Chicago and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area 33 years ago. She now lives in San Mateo, CA. She is the author of In the Poem an Ocean, a chapbook (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her work also has appeared in such journals as The Lucid Stone, 13th Moon, Earth’s Daughters, Bellowing Ark, Calyx Journal and The Fertile Source. Two of her poems received 1st and 2nd prizes in the 2012 Bay Area Poets Coalition Poetry Contest. She blogs at Poet Teacher Seeks World and can also be reached at www.lisarizzopoetry.com.
April 14, 2014 update: Interview with Lisa Rizzo at The California Journal of Women Writers by Marcia Meier.