Thursday, June 19, 2014

Teenagers

This was originally posted on my blog With The Family, September 17, 2010. At that time my oldest was about to turn 14. Now she's heading toward 18, and her siblings are 14 and 15. With three teenagers in the house I still agree with everything I wrote four years ago. (That's a relief!) 

Hopefully Someday You Will Have a Teenager


Last night my daughter asked, "Why do people have kids if they are just going to spend their lives arguing with them?"
Why do people have kids? There are as many answers to that as there are people, however, most people don't say, "I want to have kids so we can argue." Actually, while people may talk about having kids, they often end up saying, "I want to have a baby." They picture experiencing the joys of cuddling a baby and picking out cute baby clothes. Their minds may travel down the road to first words and first steps. Some prospective parents may dream as far down the road as block towers, tea parties, and cheering for their mini-soccer player. But that is as far as the fantasy of parenthood usually goes. Have you ever heard someone say, "I've decided to have a teenager"? Fortunately, parenting is a journey. Starting with conception we are given time to learn and grow, as our child learns and grows. With the exception of parents who adopt older children or who come into a family that already has children, most of us do not jump into parenting mid-stream.

If you have a baby you will also, hopefully, have a teenager. Some people might sarcastically ask why anyone would hope for a teenager, but I assure you that the alternative is not something most parents like to contemplate, much less experience. Hopefully some day you will have a teenager. How do you feel when you think about your child reaching the teenage years? Our society has cultivated a terribly negative attitude towards young people ages 13-19. I have three daughters so that may affect my perspective, but I think that girls get more than their share of this attitude. The number of times I have heard someone say, "Wait until she's 15" is astounding.

The truth is that I look forward to when they are 15. Not that I am in a hurry for them to grow up, I think their ages right now are pretty cool. However, my oldest will turn 14 in a few weeks and, if the past year is any indication, I expect that the next few years will be an enjoyable experience. I have had the pleasure of getting to know some of my daughter's friends who are older, and have found them to be delightful and amazing people. Their parents would agree with me, too.

How is it, in a society that almost universally maligns teenagers, that I am looking forward to the teenage years? Who are these other parents who think that people in the later years of their transition from child to adult are a whole lot of fun to have around on this adventure called life? What makes us different? What makes our children different?

The answer lies in our relationships. We are not perfect in our parenting, we have our grumpy days and times when we do not live up to our own ideals. Our children are not mini-me's who live lives of obedience and compliance. We do not expect our children to live their own lives in ways that make our lives as parents easier. We live our lives in partnership with each other. We all live within the realities of our chosen lives and our children understand that some times there are limits, but these are not arbitrary limits. We put our family relationships before everything else. We do not feel that because our  children are teenagers now they need less of us. We are as committed to meeting the needs of our teenagers as we were to meeting the needs of our newborn babies. Think about that for a moment: We are as committed to meeting the needs of our teenagers as we were to meeting the needs of our newborn babies.

Meeting the needs of young adults can be every bit as exhausting, challenging and complex as meeting the needs of a baby. It is even more so if their needs were not met during some period of their earlier childhood or infancy. If there are wounds that need healing or trust that must be mended, if you as a parent are not used to being aware of their needs or if they do not trust that you really want to meet their needs no strings attached, the path before you may be intimidating. Meeting the needs of your child at any age is much easier if you made your relationship a priority from the moment you decided to become a parent. The relationship you have during the teen years is the relationship you have been building for over a decade. It is also affected by your attitude, expectations and beliefs about teenagers.

Hopefully some day you will have a teenager. Hopefully some day you will enjoy having a teenager. The choice is yours. Do you want to spend the years arguing with your child or do you want to spend them enjoying your life together? When your child is a young adult do you want them to spend as much time as possible away from you, counting the months until they can move out and have a life of their own? The choice is yours. You can spend your time and energy trying to get your child to live life according to your expectations of who they will be and how they will behave and what they will do, or you can let them live their own life from the day they are born and spend your time and energy on your relationship. You can support them in who they are and what they like to do and how they like to do it from the start.

Putting your relationship first means that as a young adult your child will be able to trust you. They will know that they are free to be who they are without being criticized. They will come to you expecting honest, respectful communication about anything they want to discuss. They will know that if something does not turn out as they hoped or planned that you will be there to support them, no matter what, without lectures or punishment. They will feel your support for their dreams and passions. Putting your relationship first means that you and your child can enjoy the teenage years.

Revisit my blog post Trust to read more about parenting and trusting our children.

If you already have a teenager in the house and you would like to argue less and enjoy life together more revisit my post Conflict or Connection.

Other posts relating to teens:

Privacy and Trust in the Tween and Teen Years

What Can Your Teen Tell You?

Proximity and Technology and Relationships





Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Hazard of Raising Our Kids to be Nice

One of my kids recently played a role in a musical theater production that involved an onstage romantic relationship. That’s part of life as an actor, it was bound to happen sooner or later. And really, since she had already played a young pregnant woman at age 13, getting engaged at age 14 wasn’t nearly as challenging, well in theory. 

The challenge was that she really didn’t like the young man cast as her love interest. Pictures of from the show give no hint of this. She was determined to act the part well, to be completely in love on stage, but off stage was a very different story. 

As her mother, I was tempted more than once to encourage her to be nice to this boy. She mentioned having made it very clear to him that he was not to touch her in a romantic way when they were not on stage. She talked of letting him know that she Did Not like him at all. And I worried that she was hurting the boy’s feelings, that she was perhaps being a little too harsh. 

Then I thought about the message being sent if she was told to “be nice.” 

If she felt it necessary to draw very clear boundaries with this boy, which she did, that’s what she should do. If she had the confidence to stand up for herself and say, “No, you may not touch me!” that was a valuable life skill. If I said,”You should be nice. Be sure you aren’t hurting his feelings,” it could undermine her development of interpersonal skills that could keep her out of potentially dangerous situations or relationships in the future. 

Even though this boy seemed very nice on stage, I had no way of knowing what he was like in real life. If my daughter said he was kind of a jerk then that was probably closer to the truth than what he seemed to be while playing a fictional character. This same thing can be true off stage as well. People can put on a character, seem very nice in public, and particularly put on their “nice face” when parents are around, and then turn around and be disrespectful, cruel, or even abusive, in private. 

My daughter is generally a kind and empathetic person. She’s not mean for the fun of it, she is friends with a wide variety of people. That’s all the more reason I should support her in doing what she needs to do to feel comfortable in a situation where she’s being called on to act like she’s in love with someone she does not like. 

Learning to set boundaries, saying no to people who are older and stronger, and being clear about what is or isn’t o.k. in any particular relationship are all life skills that I have struggled with. Because of some of my own experiences, I can see the harm that could come from being raised to “be nice,” avoid rocking the boat, keep feelings hidden with an ever present smile, avoid creating conflict, and to remember that the man in a relationship has the final say.  

Sometimes when we need to say “This is not o.k. with me” it can come out sounding not very nice, but being nice is never more important than being safe. Setting boundaries, trusting our instincts, and being honest about how we are feeling are healthy things to do. We need to support our kids as they navigate relationships. Hopefully if our relationship with them is built on respect and honesty, as well as compassion, it will be easier for our kids to go out into the world and have relationships with other people based on this same foundation.

Unfortunately, many (most?) kids still grow up in families where might makes right, the adults use control and manipulation to get what they want from their children, and punishment follows any unwillingness to comply or conform to the adults’ expectations. Because of this our kids may find themselves negotiating relationships with other kids who feel the need for power or control, to make up for the lack of power and control they’ve felt growing up. Our kids will end up interacting with kids who have never had respectful relationships based on honesty and trust modeled for them. This means they may need say “No” a little more firmly, state their boundaries a little more clearly, or be what on the outside looks like “not very nice” in order to feel comfortable or safe.