THINGS I KNOW: Raising Teenagers

In an uncertain world, there’s a certain appeal in believing that there is anything we are sure about, and pride in celebrating and sharing lessons learned and wisdom gained.  And I do know a lot of things, some of them instinctively and others through hard life experiences.  This week I am telling you what I know–or think I know, anyway–about teenagers.

Let’s be honest from the start: teenagers are going to rebel. They are going to do things they shouldn’t and if they don’t actually get into trouble it’s only because they didn’t get caught. If your teenager always conforms exactly to your wishes, either you don’t know what she is really up to or her wishes are currently the same as yours. At some point when her wishes diverge from yours too much, your child will choose to do what she wants to do and not what you want her to do. The day will come sooner or later and it’s a normal part of growing up.

Teddy and Jake at 17 and 18

You cannot take the blame or the credit for how your teenager has turned out.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that–as my own teenager once told me–kids are a product of genetics and environment and you are not morally responsible for the genes you passed on and the inherent temperament with which your kid was born.  But much more important is a revelation I had last week. Your teenagers HAVE NOT TURNED OUT YET.  They are nowhere near done and you cannot judge the finished product right now any more than you could judge a cake by eating half-cooked batter.

Think about your own teenage days, and if you were a perfect teenager like I was then think about some of your classmates. Chances are you are friends with them on Facebook now, and they have homes and significant others and steady jobs and more money than you do. They have teenagers of their own whom they love and worry about. And you thought they would never amount to anything, didn’t you? Well you were wrong and if you are worrying about the future of your own teenagers think about that. The vast majority of them turn out fine if they make it through their teens.

And that’s no laughing matter, is it? Because what with teen drivers and drinking and drug use and stupid teenage tricks and feeling invulnerable, there are some teenagers who don’t get to grow up and their parents never see how they would have turned out. That leads me to more Things I Know about teenagers: the two most important tasks in parenting teens.

The first one is keep them alive.  That sounds melodramatic but what it really means is that the truly important rules, the nonnegotiable things, the things you should really be worrying about, are those that impact your teenager’s safety.  Because a bad grade may seem like it will have a dire effect on his future. But it’s really not nearly as big of a deal as ensuring that he HAS a future.  Spend less time worrying about homework and grades and more finding out who your kids’ friends are and where they are going and what they are doing once they get there.

The second task? Preserve your relationship with them. Are you prepared to say my way or the highway and mean it?  Do you really want to go there? Is maintaining compete control worth foregoing a relationship with your grandchildren and your adult child down the road? Because that happens to a lot of parents who are too critical and punitive and authoritarian.  Their kids break free one day and don’t come back.  Or when they do it’s just a matter of politeness and that distance is never bridged.  Do you want that to be you? If not, then let love guide your relationship at every turn, not pride.  Don’t let maintaining control–which you are going to lose anyway–which you are SUPPOSED to lose anyway–guide your actions when you have a problem with your child.

So many people have the kid thing backwards.  They want newborn babies to sleep through the night in a separate room so that they can “get their lives back”–whatever that means–but they hover over these same kids when they are teens, waiting up for them at night, monitoring their homework, telling them what colleges to go to.

No. The teen years are a time for letting go, for allowing more and more independence, for encouraging your kids to make good decisions, for trusting them to be the architects of their own lives.  Remember you cannot tell anyone anything.  There are very few mistakes that cannot be fixed down the road, and they are not going to learn from the ones YOU made, no matter how much you wish they could.  They have to make their own.  So let them.

This post originally appeared in Singular Insanity’s Things I Know Linkup.

0 thoughts on “THINGS I KNOW: Raising Teenagers

  1. This is the first time I stopped by your blog. Great post. It takes a lot of faith to raise a child! Thanks for your insights – remembering that it is a long road is so important.

  2. Holly

    Leslie, as always, love your thoughts! Raising teenagers is definitely a challenge..and always gives me that much more appreciation for my own mother : )

  3. This is a great post, Leslie. I like the analogy you made about a half baked cake batter. Brilliant. And also, I love what you said about not worrying so much about a bad grade as much as you should in ensuring that your child has a future. That is so true. My mom used to be so intense about the getting good grades and then my Dad on the other hand was always like, “eh? So you got a bad grade. Life goes on, try harder next time.” I think the mix of reactions helped me strive to do well, but not put too much pressure or extreme shame on myself if I messed up. And still, beyond the grades, they have always been the most intense about being safe, having street smarts, and hanging around good, wholesome friends who aren’t doing drugs. Turns out many of my friends through out middle school and high school did drugs. But somehow my parents managed to distill in me that that sort of activity isn’t a valuable one. What is valuable is my future and all the wonderful things that can come if I choose to be healthy and take of myself. I do believe this is the case because their demands and insights came from a place of love, rather than a place of pride and control.. like you said.

    1. Jen, thank you so much for visiting and for your comments. It means so much to me, coming from you, both because I know how insightful you are and also because I value your perspective of someone who was recently (more or less!) parented through the teenage years, whereas most of my readers are already parents and will be looking at this in a different way!

      1. My pleasure, Leslie! This is great for me, as I hope to have a whole school of children someday and want to be able to prepare accordingly as best as I can. I’m taking notes!!

  4. This is amazing. My kids are 2 & 3 and I’m a long way from the teen years but I hope these thoughts will make their way back to me when the time comes. I agree with everything you said!

  5. Leslie, this is such a great post. One of the things I’ve learned from providing day care to our neighbor’s infant (now toddler), is how much personality there already was from the very beginning. I used to think that we could avoid temper tantrums, if only we used the right techniques, set boundaries, etc. While I still believe in the importance of helping children navigate the world in ways that are respectful, I also think there are certain things that are out of our control. All we can do is help guide them as best we can and make sure they’re safe. I like your approach of choosing your battles carefully. When I compare myself to others I find that I was a responsible teenager, however, I remember many power struggles with my own mom and they took so much energy from both sides. I have so much more to say, but it would turn into an actual article, not a comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (and experience) on this topic!

  6. Nice post. I’ve been kind of bracing myself for when my kids become teenagers because I was not a fun person to be around at that stage, and some of my friends are really stuggling with their kids as they hit high school. But then I think about my brothers and how they didn’t really have a rebellious phase. They were lovely, and not faking it to get away with things. LIke everything it comes down to individuals and all the factors that impact them. I’m trying to be prepared for anything.

  7. Leslie, the teenage years are the ones I am most worried about with my crew! I did some pretty stupid stuff as a teen and sometimes I wonder how on earth I made it!
    Loved your insights. I am going to have to have a lot of faith in letting go when they are teens.
    p.s. I love your writing style.

    1. Wow, thank you for such a lovely comment. 🙂 I was stupidly NOT worried about having teenagers because I was a “good” teenager and also I think of myself as cool mom. So I’ve been blundering around for awhile but I THINK I’ve got a handle on at least some of it now. Still, having faith that eventually it will all work out is huge.

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  13. My husband has 17 year old twins, a boy and a girl… and man, watching the teenage years can be hilarious and frustrating, often at the same time. Like when they try to pull the wool over our eyes and sneak around or trick us and we laugh and say, “do they really think we’re THAT STUPID?!?!” and then I ask myself how often my parents saw the forest for the trees when I thought I was getting away with something. 😉 I will give the twins credit… they are MUCH more responsible than I was, or their dad for that matter (who got their mom pregnant at 18! Yikes!). 🙂 Great post!

    1. So glad you liked it! I’m afraid I have been rather stupid at times because I assumed all my kids would be as easy and well-behaved as I was. Not anymore! Lucky for me, I’m down to one teenager at the moment (from a high of three!) and this one is a very different sort although I’m sure he will be challenging in his own special way!

  14. As a parent having raised two young adults, and living through it the second time around, I absolutely can relate and LOVE your comment on keeping them alive and understanding that if you think your teen is perfect, you just don’t know what they’re doing. It’s funny how different they all are.. and how much the same. I had one that hid everything and one that tried to hide everything, but just couldn’t keep a secret. I did come out of it with a full head of hair.. with only a little gray.. and I’m bracing myself for round two!

  15. Visiting you from the Bloppies! You’re absolutely right about letting them be! I remember my teen years and I am prepared with the fact that my kids will give me quite a few grey hairs, just like I did my parents! 🙂

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  17. Thanks, Leslie! This is great. I have one that’s graduating next week and one that will be officially entering her teens in a few months. I agree, you have to let them figure some things out on their own. It’s easier said than done, but it’s best for them to learn and grow.

  18. Great great advice! I love this: “Spend less time worrying about homework and grades and more finding out who your kids’ friends are and where they are going and what they are doing once they get there.” You’ve got to let them figure things out on their own, but you also need to know their friends and what they’re doing. My children’s future teen years truly scare me — so much bad stuff out there! I will try to remember your guidance. 🙂

  19. Wow, amazing post! I don’t have teenagers but I will keep this in mind. I see it daily, what you mention, about people wanting their babies to sleep through the night and be independent but then hovering and being afraid to give freedom as their kids get older.

  20. I love this. I clearly don’t have teens myself quite yet, but I work with them a lot and have watched my parents with my younger siblings. I think keeping them alive is always important, but the preserving the relationship with them is critical. You have no power to influence someone who does not respect or associate with you. I a big believer in that there should always be more time spent on love, positivity, and the relationship, than there is on discipline.

  21. I love this. My oldest 3 are I8, 16, and 15 yrs. old and I agree with everything that you said. I have learned that they are not me or my husband, they are themselves and they have their own ideas about things. I definitely will not let the demand of control hurt my chances of a long term relationship with my children. I really enjoyed your post, Leslie!

  22. Tiara

    Raising teenagers cannot be easy. I do not have teenagers, I do not have children but I know I was not easy for my mother. This is a great post!

  23. tinsel12

    Leslie, you always have insightful thoughts on your blog. My boys are just 5 and 6 so I have a lot to look forward to!

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