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Teachers, I turn to you for validation— teenagers are destroyers of property! Am I right?

Nothing is safe within the teen-zone. Whether in the classroom or the home, anything from a pencil to a couch, anything they can pick up or jump on is open game. If they can break it, smash it, tear it, shred it, cut it, slice it or stain it, they will. Oh, and dirt and body oil are their primary weapons of mass destruction.

I’ve taught students in the upper grades, middle and high school, for 27 years.  It wasn’t too long into my career before I became acutely aware that nothing, nothing and especially anything with moving parts was ever safe in an area where teens roosted.

Although I am fascinated by it now, I have to admit that at first, I found this teen obsession of having to touch and manipulate anything within arms reach highly irritating. I was especially annoyed by the phenomenon I referred to as ‘stapler fixation syndrome.’  It was most irksome because it usually left me in the lurch—not having a stapler when I needed one most. There must be some sort of bizarre gravitational pull between a teen and a stapler that sucks them into a freakishly predictable behavior pattern.

There are some creative variations but overall the stapler fixation process goes something like this:

First, touch the stapler. Touch it again. Pick up the stapler. Now turn it upside down and try to open it. (This is when an adult usually gets involved and says something powerful like: “Put that down! Do you see me coming into your home and touching your stuff?”

Wait just a few seconds because although the teacher noticed you, she obviously isn’t serious. When she looks away, pick up the stapler again. Now, and this is the most exciting step, start rapidly slamming the top of the stapler with the palm of your hand. Slam it hard and slam it repeatedly.  Slam it at least two more times after the teacher yells at you for touching her stapler. These are the best slams you will get in! And, you may be compelled to laugh with excitement over this realization. Go ahead and chuckle. Lastly, if for some strange reason the teacher does not catch you slamming the top of the stapler because well maybe she is occupied with the 35 other freaky humans all in need of her attention, go ahead and open the stapler again. But now this time, hold it in such a way that it can be used as a weapon! Find your best buddy and rapidly dispense staples at his head while chasing him around the room!

This will be the best part of your entire day!

“Hey, STOP that right now! If you can’t treat my supplies with respect then maybe you can’t be in this classroom!”  Kids need to learn how to respect the property of others, right?

Well, yes, they should respect property. But, my entire outlook on the matter was altered quite abruptly the day my own flesh and blood engaged in like behavior, and in my own home, nonetheless! Yes, it happened on a weeknight, a school night. I was in my office in our home exhausted and a bit crabby attempting to finish the last of the days’ lesson planning for my 9th-grade students. My 14-year-old daughter entered all bright eyed and bushy tailed (as my dad used to say), ready to have an invigorating conversation about something that had just occurred to her and of which she absolutely needed to discuss.

Though I considered pulling out the face that screams “Not available right now cause I’m a working mother for crying out loud,” as a purposeful parent, I could tell it was time to stop and award her this much-needed audience with mom.   It was during this exciting exchange that I first observed my daughter engage in a doozy of a teen body-regulation maneuver. Yes, she pulled off the classic teen combo of simultaneous chair tilting AND the stapler smash!

While nonchalantly partaking in the teen ‘way too far back’ tip on the antique wood chair (what?) she simultaneously leaned over to my desk and lit into a full-blown classic rapid stapler smash! Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. She even bypassed the initial stapler overview. My daughter, the one who I had taught the importance of respecting the property of others and not to ever play with things that were obviously not toys, opened with the full-on stapler smash?

My mouth dropped!  It was the first time I had ever witnessed her do such things and I was appalled! “Would you do this to the stapler in your classroom?” I snapped, “Sit up on that chair!  You’re going to hurt yourself AND the chair!”

Well, although we were able to help her choose more appropriate ways to regulate movement, her desire to manipulate random objects continued on through to about age 20.  I have to say that I was quite amazed by her pencil tapping routine. (Another common teen body regulatory technique) She had picked up some mad skills from her fellow middle schoolers and her tap-beat was pretty impressive. It wasn’t until it transferred to the fork during dinner that I had to step in.

As a purposeful parent and for my own sanity,  I try to choose FLOW over fight or flight whenever possible.  I figured I could spend all the upcoming years fussing and yelling every time my teenager did something ‘weird’ or I could use my knowledge of this phase of human development, temper my inclination for anger and use my creativity instead. I know that this behavior is a standard characterization of the teen phase— across the globe and across time.  Teens by their beautiful nature crave novelty. This, coupled with a rapidly changing body and brain, making manipulation of objects a prime source of body regulation and satisfaction. It is what the breed demands.

I chose the teaching/humor route at home.  I helped my daughter understand that this behavior was typical and that she was not ‘bad’ for doing it. Then I put some firm limits on how it could be used.  “Hey there Miss Tippy McTipperton, that is not a tipping chair. If you need to tip, come on over here and use this one.” I would then offer an ottoman.

I also helped remove some of the temptation by teen-proofing certain areas.  Save yourself the hassle and put your stuff out of reach.

As parents and teachers, we always have choices to either react or respond to inappropriate behavior.  We can choose to get angry and yell things like, “What’s wrong with you?” and “You should know better!”But, this gets old quite quickly and is ineffective at the onset.

Let’s choose responses more in line with coaching and nurturing so that they can get through this phase safely, with little damage to property and zero damage to your relationship.

NOTE: In the classroom, I chose to use this teen proclivity for touching things as the basis for sort of experiment —to satisfy my curiosity I guess.  How long would a stapler last unprotected, out in the wild, so to speak, without intervention from a teacher? I hypothesized, one month, two weeks?

The result?  Well, surprisingly most lasted about three weeks. But the by-product, the graveyard for staplers, has become a fantastic prop for my workshops about the teen brain!  It’s a rather humorous site of mauled and mangled staplers. I also have a collection of more than strange ‘creations’ I’ve found in the high school student union at the end of the day.  Pretty amazing minds, I’ll tell ya!

About the author

Kate Martin

Kate Martin has been a high school teacher for 27 years and retired from the Racine Unified School District in 2015.  She taught students with special needs as well as those in general education. While working with hundreds of parents over the years, she discovered that there was a significant lack of resources and educational opportunities to help them navigate the many demands of parenting today. For this reason, in 2013 she founded The Purposeful Parent, offering workshops and resources for parents, teachers, and caregivers.

In 2016 Kate published a book intended to help reduce ‘pre-sleep’  anxiety experienced by many of her students.  The book: “The Best Thoughts to Think— Five Minutes Before” has quickly become a beloved bedside sleep guide for people of all ages.  The book offers six simple techniques to help dismiss negative thoughts and replace them with positive thinking.

Today, Kate is busy giving presentations to schools, businesses, community groups, and all who are eager to learn how to help people and groups tap into their full capacity by learning to trust their brilliance more than their doubts.