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.