Was there ever a more mystifying or mercurial entity sharing your roof and eating all of your food than a human teenager? In her new parenting book, LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS, popular columnist Myrna Beth Haskell wisely and whimsically affirms the empathetic message “You’re not alone” to the bewildered moms and dads of today’s younger generation.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Let’s start out by looking at how – and why – your popular syndicated column Lions and Tigers and Teens transitioned to a full-fledged book of the same name.
A: Since I have dialogue with parents on a regular basis, many of them suggested I put the columns together into a guide. I started to look at all of the columns I had already written, and I realized that compiling my favorites together was a fabulous idea! The chapters are actually longer than the original column installments. I added more from the original interviews, and I added additional tips.
Q: Newspaper and magazine columns are typically stand-alone fare on a variety of different topics. In compiling columns for inclusion, how did you keep the whole thing cohesive for prospective readers?
A: This was easier than one might think. I was able to group the columns into sections so that parents could easily scan the book for “general” types of issues/solutions. For instance, the section “Firsts” deals with issues such as a teen’s first time behind the wheel or first boyfriend/girlfriend. The section titled “The Bad and the Ugly” deals with serious problems teens might face (i.e. depression, substance abuse, bullying).
Q: What is the overarching theme of the book and who is your target demographic?
A: Theme/Central message: No parent is perfect. However, if you are willing to try different approaches and communicate with your teen regularly, you are well on your way to solving any issue. Collaborate with your teens to find solutions to problems, and your teen will be well on his/her way to becoming an accomplished adult.
Demographic: Caregivers of teens (moms, dads, secondary teachers, etc.) – generally men and women between the ages of 38 and 55.
Q: Do today’s teenagers have it harder or easier than they did when you were a teen yourself?
A: I think that many of the issues are the same. Teens are still dealing with peer pressure, body image, self esteem, bullying, violence, and academic stresses. One stark difference in my opinion: the amount of violence teens are exposed to. I do not remember movies and games being so focused on gratuitous and graphic violence – many times void of consequences. I think teens have more access to this type of media today due to the Internet and social networking. Violence is exploited and easily accessed.
Q: Knowing what you know now as a product of life experiences, would you ever want to go back for a do-over? If so, what would you do differently?
A: I would never want to “do-over” any stage of my life. I truly believe that we are who we are today because of our past experiences – good and bad. This also goes for parenting. Every parent makes mistakes. You learn from them and you move on.
Q: What fascinates, inspires and/or troubles you the most about the modern teen mindset?
A: Technology can be wonderful and it offers teen’s exposure to places and ideas that help to expand the mind and imagination. However, there is a dark side to all of this exposure. Today’s technology exacerbates “instant gratification.” Texting, IMing, and other forms of shortened/instant messaging create problems we didn’t once have. To some extent, many teens are losing the ability to express themselves in reasoned and thoughtful ways. They are building relationships where the only contact is via a computer, as opposed to taking the time to actually “be together” and talk to someone. Bullying has also become more hurtful (cyber bullying) where egregious comments or harmful images can be sent to hundreds of peers in an instant.
Q: Should parents allow celebrities to be their teenagers’ role models?
A: Teens should understand that celebrity is a business…that what they see on TV or in movies is a fabrication of reality. Many celebrities are portrayed in the media as going down the wrong path because it sells newspapers and advertising space. Parents should make an effort to point out good things teen celebrities are doing in their communities and talk about why instant celebrity might cause a person to make bad choices. It is a pipe dream to think your teenager won’t be curious about celebrities, so you need to have frequent and open discussions about celebrity.
Q: Your love of the written word was ignited at a very young age. Were you a voracious reader as an adolescent and a teenager?
A: I was definitely into books. I was into the horror genre as a teenager. I read a lot of Stephen King. I also loved books about adolescent angst written from the adolescent perspective. I wrote a book review column for my high school newspaper.
Q: What were some of your favorite books?
A: Favorites in adolescence: The Shining, The Stand, The Exorcist, Are You there God? It’s Me, Margaret, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.
Favorites in College: Catch 22, Beloved, Misery, A Clockwork Orange, The Sound and the Fury
Other favorites: In Cold Blood, Memoirs of a Geisha, Angela’s Ashes
Wow…I guess these lists are quite diverse! Basically, I love any book that really goes into “character.”
Q: What are you reading now?
I’ve just started Stephen King’s 11/22/63 about the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I also have Killing Kennedy on my shelf – waiting to be read. Unfortunately, I do not have the time I would like to read strictly for pleasure. Much of my time reading is spent doing research for my features and column installments.
Q: At what point did you awaken to the realization that you wanted to make your living as a full-time writer?
A: In elementary school I knew I wanted to be a writer. However, I didn’t start out as a full time writer. That is extremely difficult to do. Most budding writers have day jobs. I used to teach at a community college, and I also worked as a technical writer. Once I began freelancing in 1997, my writing career developed from there. It takes time to build relationships with editors. It was very part-time the first several years when my children were young.
Q: Did you have mentors to guide you on that journey? If so, what were the most valuable lessons you learned from them?
A: I’ve stayed in touch with two former teachers – one is an author and one a poet. I’ve asked them both for advice over the years. More recently, I’ve had contact with other writers via social networking, as well as folks I’ve had contact with whom I’ve met through my work.
I guess I’ve learned through experience and from mentors that you have to love to write -first and foremost. Most writers do not strike it rich. They write for the love of writing…which is what I do.
Q: You’re the parent of two children. Over the course of writing your columns and developing the structure of your book, did you learn anything new that could be applied to your own parenting style?
A: I definitely learned to lighten up at times. My lead-in for “Tornadoes and Other Hazards” has a light-hearted tone partly because I realized I had to let my son’s sloppy lifestyle go a bit – “pick your battles” comes to mind. There is a difference between issues that drive us crazy because they just “drive us crazy” and issues that concern our teens’ health and well being. I decided to focus on the latter. I’ve also learned that there are many approaches that work. You need to decide what’s best based on your family dynamic and the personality and maturity level of your teen.
Q: Are you a parent, a pal or both?
A: I’m a “parent” most of the time. I think some parents try too hard to be “friends” with their teens. Teens need parents…adults to guide them and draw boundaries. However, at times, I do things with my teens that a friend might also do…including giggling with my daughter until I have the hiccups or playing video games with my son. You have to know how to have a good time with your teens even though your first job is to “parent.”
Q: At the end of each chapter in the book is a section called Tips and Tales. What were some of the best tips that other parents contributed?
A: The “Tips and Tales” sections include great advice from other parents. My best tips: One parent wrote in about her own experience with depression in her teen years for the “Down in the Dumps” chapter which addresses teen depression. I also received some great tips on anti-bullying programs at various schools. Parents, who also happen to be principals, high school guidance counselors, and teachers, wrote in with great tips. Their advice is obviously coming from more than one perspective.
Q: How much research went into the planning of the book?
A: Research is extremely important for the type of writing I do. I consider myself an educator, so I have to get it right. I do general research on each topic before I even approach experts to interview. The direction my topics take is influenced by my experiences, but often changes a bit once I do research and interview experts (psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, educators). This is information my readers need to be armed with when they approach a problem.
I also did research on how to put the book together. I looked at other compilations and popular parenting books. The chapters are grouped into sections to make it easy for parents to find a particular topic. I opted to do my own foreword because I was able to talk about my inspiration for the book and column. The afterword (“Common Parentisms…and the answers your teens are thinking, not saying”) is humorous and goes with the tone of many of the lead-ins for the chapters (It kind of raps up the “generation gap”). After all, parents of teens have to have a sense of humor.
Q: Were there existing parenting books that influenced your approach to Lions and Tigers and Teens?
A: Since my book is a compilation of my favorite column installments, I would say the influence started with my column. My work falls into the parenting genre, and I favor a lighthearted, down-to-earth, or humorous tone in the books and columns I choose to read by others. I absolutely love Erma Bombeck! I also enjoy the Newbie Dad column, by Brian Kantz. Actually, I enjoy several “dad” columns and books, including work by Bruce Sallan (A Dad’s Point of View). I think dads have a propensity to laugh at themselves more so than moms.
Q: What do you feel is the most serious problem confronting teens in the 21st century and what is the remedy to help them deal with it?
A: There seems to be a lot more stress on teens today – school stress, social stress, stress about finding a job when they get out of school, stress about affording college, etc. Stress is the underlying factor for a lot of problems that adolescents face (teen depression, substance abuse, test anxiety…the list goes on). If parents can guide a teen to focus on their goals, improve their self esteem, face issues head-on, and allow them to make mistakes…stress will decrease and teens can focus on becoming a valuable member of society.
Q: Which chapters proved the most challenging?
A: “The Truth, the Whole Truth, well…sort of” (about what to tell your teens about your past) was difficult because there were many diverse opinions.
“That Ain’t the Way to Have Fun” (about teen substance abuse) required a lot of research.
Q: Conversely, which chapters were the most fun?
A: “The Locked Door” (about teen privacy): I just loved writing the lead-in for this one.
“No Jacket Required” (about teens refusing to wear jackets): This was fun because of all of the great comments I got from parents on this one.
Q: What is something that most people would be surprised to know about you?
A: I am an avid gymnastics fan – another passion of mine. I was a gymnast. I also choreographed routines for NCAA Division I teams, and I was a Level 10 judge for over 15 years. Today, I still try to make it to local championship meets and, of course, I follow what our US girls are doing on TV.
Q: What advice would you give other writers who are in the process of writing their first book?
A: Don’t get discouraged and have the courage to allow other writers to critique your work. Understand that when you’ve finished your book…your work is not done. Prepare to market your book even if you’ve signed with a traditional publisher. This process can be a daunting one if you are not aware that you have to put in just as much – if not more – time marketing as you did writing.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m always writing new features concerning children’s health and development, and I continue with the column each month. I have plans to start a new column for empty nest folks and a possible second edition of LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS.
LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS, published by Unlimited Publishing, is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk as a paperback and ebook. To learn more about Myrna, visit her website at http://www.myrnahaskell.com.