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5 things I think I taught my teenagers

By Tom Sturges, Special to CNN
Tom Sturges poses with his two teenage sons, Thomas (left) and Sam.
Tom Sturges poses with his two teenage sons, Thomas (left) and Sam.
  • When you have their attention, give teenagers clear, direct advice
  • Learn how to approach awkward talks by beginning with a question
  • Author: Always show your teenagers respect when speaking with them
  • Parenting
  • Teenagers

Editor's note: Tom Sturges, record executive and son of renowned screenwriter Preston Sturges, is also the author of a new book on parenting, "Grow the Tree You Got." Along with raising two sons, he volunteers with at-risk youths in Los Angeles.

(CNN) -- You can never be certain teenagers will be listening for long. When you want to share your wisdom with them, it's hard to know if they are really paying attention or just amusing themselves until the next text or tweet rolls in. When you do have their fleeting attention, be direct, to the point and on message.

Here are some of the things (I think) I taught my teenagers.

1. How to win like champions -- by learning to lose like champions.

Ever been on the wrong end of a blowout? I've coached quite a few youth teams, and it happens all the time.

While emotionally brutal, these situations present a chance for you to teach your children how to win like champions -- because the best way to do this is to teach them how to lose like champions, and that the two are not so very different.

Make sure they know they could easily be in the other team's shoes and teach them to be respectful and gracious. Tell them to congratulate the other team and thank the refs, no matter what the score is or how elated or heartbroken they may feel.

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2. How to say what has to be said, even if it's awkward or difficult

I have always said awkward things by starting with a question.

"If you had some food on your teeth, could I tell you?" Or, "If you had mispronounced someone's name, would you want to know?" Or, "Your teacher called me today. Would now be a good time to talk about it?"

Instead of an accusation, it is an inquiry. In turn, they learn one way to say the awkward things they might have to say someday.

3. How to show complete respect at all times

This is easy, even though it sounds like it could be hard. There is nothing more important than consistently showing your children that you respect them. No yelling, no hitting, lots of 'please' and 'thank you,' and a lasting promise never to embarrass them.

If they are always respected, they will always know what respect is, how important it is, and they will always show respect to you and to others.

4. How to play the piano (and it only took two minutes!)

It only took two minutes because it is so easy to learn. I taught both boys in one afternoon. It's all about the black keys. Only play the black keys, and you'll always be in the right key.

Famous black key songs include "Amazing Grace," the theme to "All in the Family" and Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." Neither teenager plays like Jose Iturbi, but neither one is afraid of a Steinway Baby Grand either.

5. To always tell the bad news first

There is really nothing worse than bad news, except bad news that goes undelivered! How can a parent or mentor or coach fix something if we don't know it's broken or missing or lost?

To make sure I always get the headlines as they are being written, whether good or bad news, I created an incentive plan. It was, and is, foolproof and simple: The truth reduces the punishment by 90%!

Tell the true story and three days without a cell phone becomes three hours. Two weeks without a car becomes two days without it, and so forth. A fairer punishment. And now they have no reason to fib. Now they rush to tell the bad news, as soon as it's happened.

I might have taught them a few other things over the years, or maybe not. One can never be sure, I'm guessing, until much later on, when teenagers have become grownups and parents themselves, and they tell us what they remember about these brief and beautiful years we spent together.

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