The thing is, you love your kids desperately. So it’s incredibly hard to watch them making mistakes that you think will come back to bite them later on. Over the years you’ve gotten used to letting them make small mistakes — helping themselves to too much pudding or riding their bike too fast downhill. As time goes on, the mistakes get bigger.
So now you have to watch them drink too much at their friend’s party or wear clothes that are far too low-cut (or high-cut). Maybe you even have to stand back when they decide to leave school at 16, when you’d hoped they go to college or lose a brilliant Saturday job because it’s too much effort getting up in the morning. It’s a much bigger deal than letting your 2-year-old take too much pudding. The stakes are getting higher.
Unless your child is putting themselves in serious danger, you really do have to put up with it. Sometimes even if it’s dangerous, you have no choice. The more you try to tell them, the more you push them in the opposite direction. They’re looking for something to kick at, to rebel against, because they’re programmed to. The more force you use, the more they’ll use.
Remember Newton’s third law of motion? For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. He could equally well have called it the first law of teenagers.
So what can you do when you see them going wrong? You can tell them what you think, but don’t tell them what to do. And tell them in the way you’d tell a grown-up and an equal. Not, “I’ll tell you what I think! I think you’re a fool!” More along the lines of, “It’s your decision, but have you thought how you’ll fund your senior trip if you spend your money on this?” Talk to them like an adult and maybe they’ll respond like an adult. And if not this time, maybe next time. They’ll certainly be quicker to ask your advice if they know it will be given as an equal.
Teenagers are up to things you don’t want to know about. Of course, you do know about them really, which is why you’re worried. If you were entirely ignorant, you’d be much happier.
Look, take it from me, your daughter has gone further than you’d like with her boyfriend. Your son uses porn magazines. They’ve both tried at least a drag of a cigarette by now. And they’ve almost certainly been offered drugs, but they won’t have any evidence of it hanging around in their room, so there’s no point looking. Happy? Good. Now you don’t need to look under the mattress or read their secret diary.
You’re not going to find anything that thousands of parents before you haven’t found. In fact, you’re probably not going to find anything that your own parents didn’t find. And what are you going to do about it — confront them? I think not. You’ll severely damage your relationship, and they’ll just keep themunder the floorboards instead.
Maybe you should think back to the things you did as a teenager that you didn’t want your parents to know about. Maybe you do things nowadays that you’d rather not tell your parents. See? Your kids are just being perfectly normal teenagers. And if you don’t make a big deal out of all those perfectly normal teenagery things they’re up to, they’re much more likely to come and tell you if anything gets out of hand or is a real problem for them. And that’s the important point. If you act like all that stuff under the mattress is normal, they’ll feel they can talk to you without fear of an irrational response.
You started off with 18 years and counting. How many have you got left? Because when you get to zero, they’ll be on their own. That means they’ll have to know how to shop, cook, clean, and straighten up (up to a point anyway), do their own washing, pay their bills, stay in the black, and all the rest of it.
I know parents — and without wanting to be sexist here it’s almost always mothers — who are still looking after their kids when they’re 18. And the kids, not being crazy, let them do it. In fact, I have one friend who is 35 and still takes his washing to his mother’s. I don’t mean he borrows his mother’s washing machine, which might be understandable; I mean he hands the washing to his mother and leaves her to get on with it. It takes two to play that game.
You’re counting down the last few years now to independence. And if your child hits 18 never having used a washing machine or cooked a decent meal, is that really fair for them? They may not realize what a handicap it will be, but you know perfectly well, as a Rules parent, that pampering a child doesn’t prepare them for the real world.
You know your child’s strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone. So think through what they still need to learn, and make sure they do. If they’re hopeless with money, teach them to budget. Get them to do the family shopping for a week on your usual budget, or get firm about not paying to fill up their car beyond the agreed amount.
I know a man who started to develop psychological problems as a teenager. He used to spend as much time as he could in his bedroom listening to music, which was the one thing that gave him pleasure. As time went on, things became worse. Even after he’d left home, the problems continued. Many years later, he said a very interesting thing. He explained that one of the biggest blows to his confidence was the way his parents used to complain about the awful music he listened to.
You see, when you criticize your teenager’s choices, you criticize them. It’s an age of fragile egos and easily knocked self-esteem, and it’s easy to make your teenager feel that you disapprove, or even that you don’t like them. Whether it’s their music or their politics or the way they dress or their decision to become vegetarian, they need to know that it’s okay with you.
It’s one of the many paradoxes of teenagers. On the one hand, they want to rebel, to shock you, to do things that get to you, and on the other hand, they want your approval and your goodwill. I know it’s confusing for you, but it’s worse for them. They’re trapped inside minds and bodies that are trying to make the transition from dependent child to independent adult, and they don’t know what they want themselves half the time. One minute they want to grow up as fast as possible, and the next it’s all getting too scary, and they want to slow down. You just have to accept it and go with the flow.
No, not your own sex life. I hope that’s already healthy. I mean sex in general and, in particular, your teenager’s sex life. They may not have one yet (are you sure?), but they will sooner or later. And you want to make sure that when they do, it’s happy and safe and fulfilling, not furtive.
What is the single factor most likely to give your teenager a good experience? And, indeed, the confidence to delay that first experience until they’re ready? That’s right: Being comfortable with the subject. The more your child knows about sex and finds it easy to talk about, the more able they will be to say no, or to insist on a condom, or to respect their partner’s feelings.
You can pretty much take it as read that the more you talk about sex (and drugs, alcohol, smoking, and all the rest) at home, the more confident your teenager will be in making mature decisions for themselves when the time comes. Even broad-minded parents who report strong relationships with their teenagers generally say that this is the trickiest subject to discuss comfortably, probably not least because teenagers also report that they find it difficult. But the onus is on you to show that it’s a perfectlyacceptable, normal thing to talk about.
School will teach your child the mechanics of sex, of course, and very probably also the basics of HIV and STDs and how to put on a condom. But your kids will giggle their way through this with their friends, and it won’t tell them anything about the fact that sex is a normal part of adult life, and that it has a complex relationship with the emotions. You’ll have to tell them that — don’t count on school to do it.