Can I Trust My Teen?

A number of years ago, as I was driving north with my nineteen-year old daughter, she said: “Dad, you never gave me the No Smoking Lecture.”

“I know,” I replied. “I always trusted you.”

“But I needed it.”

“What do you mean, you needed it?”

“You do know I smoked, right?”

“No. Well, I guess I remember Mom finding a pack of cigarettes in your room, but I wasn’t worried about it.”

“Why not?”

“As I said, I have always trusted your decision making abilities.”

“Well, you should have. I needed the No Smoking Lecture.”

“Really? Why? Are you addicted?”

“No, but I needed it.”

“O.K. I am sorry I didn’t give it to you.”

“No, Dad. I still need it. I want the No Smoking Lecture. Now.”

“O.K. Don’t smoke.”

“That’s not the No Smoking Lecture!”

“But I don’t do the No Smoking Lecture. I don’t even know the No Smoking Lecture.”

“Certainly, you know the No Smoking Lecture. It begins with ‘Listen, Kid. Smoking is a dirty, filthy habit…’ and then goes on from there.”

“O.K.” (I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped because to do it properly, of course, I had to look her straight in the eyes.) “Listen. Smoking is a dirty, filthy habit. It is unattractive. It makes your breath smell bad, and it marks you as a certain kind of person–a kind of person I don’t like, and I don’t want you to be or look like that kind of person. A girl who smoked could never be my girlfriend, and I would certainly never marry one. Smoke will do damage to a fetus in your womb; it will give you cancer and a variety of other serious diseases. In fact, smoking can kill you. I do not want you to smoke. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Dad. I understand.”

“Good.” Then added, “How did I do?”

“That was great. Thank you.”

Apparently, my daughter felt I had “underparented” by under-communicating my values. I learned: just because we trust our children doesn’t mean we can’t lecture them. They need to hear where we stand; it is useful information for any young decision maker.

If, however, our lecture is an attempt to control our teen’s behavior, we are going to make things a lot more difficult. Just because we define and clarify boundaries to them does not mean we don’t trust them. On the contrary, we are implying that we know that they will make their own decisions; we just want to give them the benefit of our experience. If they have our voice in their head telling them that smoking is bad (or whatever) at least when they are reckless, they will be reckless a little more carefully.

By the time they are 13, we are playing a game of high responsibility/low control. We have to treat them as if they know what they are doing, even though we know that they don’t, quite. It can be a little scary. This apparently paradoxical dance can drive people (parents and children alike) crazy unless the parent understands that taking responsibility for a child does not mean controlling them. Raising children is an exercise in learning from mistakes.

Bottom line: we may be confused, but if we play our cards right our children will show us or tell us what they need, and we will be able to talk about it with them.

What are your challenges?

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4 thoughts on “Can I Trust My Teen?

  1. I totally see where your daughter was coming from. Trust is tricky, but even if it’s good I think communication is key.

    There is a HUGE difference between discussion and lecturing though, and discussion tends to work a lot better, especially with teenagers. That discussion is part of sharing your values and concerns and being there to talk to, not just laying down the law.

    I’m sure we all have things we wish our parents did differently with us (and I do), but this is one thing my parents were brilliant at and I intend to follow their example with my daughter. I could not only always talk to my parents about everything, but because of that trust I was able to get good guidance and I had a very healthy teenage period (and a healthy happy life now too).

    I’d say the foundation for being able to talk with your kid about all the thorny stuff: sex, drugs (including cigarettes and alcohol), and dangerous situations generally gets set very early. These are things that teenagers are likely to get into or close to no matter what and just saying no or ignoring it won’t change that, it will only leave them unprepared when they are suddenly in the middle of it. Even if they are sane, rational sweet creatures and you trust them… well teenage years are when everyone’s a little crazy and one can consider even the most rational kid at risk.

    If you talk with them about those things well before they are on the horizon you get to talk with them about it first and set the stage. I think a lot of parents are nervous about those talks and put them off until the kid has already been hearing about these things from peers and older kids (great source of information right?) for years. If they are as old as twelve, they’ve probably already been exposed one way or another. When they hit puberty the game starts changing, and what their friends say starts to matter much more than what you say.

    My parents had me learn about where babies come from when I was about two from a completely biological standpoint and a cute little Danish book for toddlers. Therefore sex itself was never weird or scary and talking to my parents about it was as easy as asking any other question about how the world works. The talks about sex safety, std’s, etc. came from my mother sometime around the age of ten (she’s an anthropologist who has worked in public health, specifically reproductive health for much of her career). This meant I had the expert clinical information at my fingertips before the peers started in and I knew who to go to for questions- and more importantly I knew I could. My dad was better with the emotional side of this (sex is powerful and has lots of feelings tied up with it- not something to do lightly even if it’s safe) and I got that equally early.

    With drugs it was much the same. Rather than an across-the-board condemnation that prevented talk, they explained carefully what different drugs did, what the side effects and hazards were, why people were attracted to them and the problems they could cause (I fully intend to point out homeless crack addicts to my daughter and show her just where that can go).

    If my parents had just put a blanket “No! That’s forbidden, that’s bad!” it would have closed the door to discussion. If I had tried drugs in that situation I wouldn’t have been able to go to them for any kind of help or advice. If it was a forbidden subject that would bring only punishment I would not have gone to them. I suspect I would have resorted to lying (which I generally never felt the need to do with my parents) and would have more easily have gotten into actual trouble with things. I saw that happen to a couple of my friends- one as early as thirteen.

    This is the key thing. Yes, there are rules, yes there are things that are dangerous, but condemnation is a discussion ender. Also, kids change so fast that rules need to be open for negotiation. What is reasonable one month becomes outdated the next. That was another thing my parents did right. There were rules and I could get grounded or similar, but those rules were open to negotiation and discussion. If I broke a rule or did something I’d agreed not to do, punishment was justifiable. At the same time I knew I could say “okay, I know my curfew is usually 12, but if I ever want to go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show with my friends I would need to come home later because it starts at 12”. Then I could tell them who was driving, where I was going, how I was getting back, when I should check in, etc. If they had outright forbidden me, I might have resorted to saying I was staying a friend’s house and going out where they didn’t know I would be with people they didn’t know.

    Recently my father reminded me that this respect and discussion ended up going both ways. In the summer before college I no longer had a curfew, but my dad wanted me to come home earlier some nights. I told him where I was going and everything, but he told me he wasn’t getting enough sleep because he just didn’t sleep well until I was home and I was out every night. He told me he knew I now had the right to stay out, but asked me to please stay home a few nights so he could sleep- and I was able to understand that and agree as one person to another because that mutual respect was there.

    I think a lot of people confuse this sort of very active parenting with just letting things go and being the kid’s “friend” instead- and if you do that I think you’re bound for trouble. This wasn’t that. They talked very strongly about the dangers of different things. They set rules, they even had punishments (mostly grounding- though I think it only happened a couple times). The big difference was that communication was wide open. It was a negotiable, constantly changing relationship, with recognition that I was becoming adult and increasingly making my own decisions. Because we had the communication they were available as guides, and they knew what I was doing, and there wasn’t lying.

    Lecturing and inflexible punishment would never have worked. I feel like I safely negotiated my teenage years with more maturity and grace than most because of this parenting style, and I was more prepared for the freedom of the world when I left my parents because of it as well. I can only hope I can do the same with my own daughter (who I plan to teach martial arts to as well- it never hurts).

  2. Well said. wonderful detailed description of how we can define boundaries in such a way that we facilitate, rather than cramp our children’s decision making. I have often thought that a good goal for parents to keep their eye on is: You can talk. A good long range goal is: “The child will come to me for advice when they are a teenager because they see me as an authority on things that can be helpful to them.” Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Dear Rick,

    I can’t begin to tell you how useful, brilliant, wise and wonderful I am finding your book, The Genius in Children.

    There are so many ideas, statements, observations that you make that resonate with my thinking, questions, beliefs, etc. It is a beautiful book and one that everyone should read as a human being. How different the world would be if all of our teachers and parents had believed (or just assumed, as you say wisely say we need to do) in that genius in each of us. Allowed us to stay in the struggle, and just be with us through it all.

    I love the way that you look so carefully at important words like discipline and character, and make the distinctions between virtues that are disciplines and virtues that are aspirations…there are countless gems in your book that made me stop and think, and say, aha! That is how or why….

    I have come to some really important discoveries for myself about what is not quite right with the multicultural/diversity work that is being done in the education world today: your explanation of bringing the self into all education, of it being at the center – that is what is missing. Multicultural education is being taught in the schools the way everything else is: with the eye towards standards, external pressures, success, achievement. We are not staying in those uncomfortable places long enough to work through them and heal. It is not coming from the self, the joy, the compassion, the curiosity and wonder, the innate desire to connect.

    People don’t understand the connection of why diversity and multicultural education is so central to good education. I finally made the connection and have put together a really helpful presentation for my school. A lot of the connecting pieces came out of the thinking your book provided me with. I think it will be extremely useful, moving and powerful. I am so grateful that my boss, the Head of our school, handed me the book because he thought that I might find it useful. (He hadn’t read it yet, but I will make sure that he does soon!) If you are interested in hearing more about this, please let me know! I would be happy to share with you, but it is a pretty huge topic!

    And there is one place that I think I can give you a heads up, too. In your anecdote about Sofia, I think you correctly come to the conclusion that a loving presence, (you) made the difference and turned the situation around in a positive way for her. You sat by her and listened to her. I think you are mistaken though that it was the distraction of asking her about her mother’s name, which turned the situation around. She had to cry about missing her parents. She cried and you listened. She sensed that she was not alone and that she was supported. What you talked about in the next chapter about having to hold your son down while they stitched him up – that was exactly on target. Our society has not prepared us well to deal with pain and suffering. But we are doing our children and all humanity a great disservice if we do not let them feel it. That is the true honoring of the whole, of the self, of the soul. That is truly seeing the whole child and his/her genius.

    I think that you fall into a common misunderstanding of what crying actually is. Crying is not the hurt. The hurt has already happened. Crying is the healing. Sofia needed to finish her process with s loving ear. She was ready to go on and have a conversation with you because she had had enough of that space to cry in so that she had retrieved her attention and inherent joy.

    To present crying as a “behavior that we don’t want” is, I think, damaging. Crying is what human beings do when we are sad, disappointed, angry, grief stricken, etc. To accept the standard belief that it is negative behavior or just behavior that we don’t want is not useful in helping us to see and honor the whole child. The whole child includes his/her emotions and feelings.

    Would it not be disrespectful to an adult who is crying to say, “Hey, look at this little toy I am playing with? Want to see my new blackberry?” (adult toy) Yet this is what we so often do as parents or adults to young people. We try to distract them from their pain. We do not honor their need to stay in that hard space. We do not just sit and stay with them. It pushes too many buttons inside of us. We were not listened to like that as kids, so we really have a hard time doing it now.

    Another thing that I LOVED was your observation about the way children do not have to be carefully taught the prejudices of their parents, society etc. Our job is to help liberate them. Again, the liberation process is much more simple than many believe. It is about listening to them. Children are inherently compassionate and want to be connected. The liberation process requires their healing from all the societal and personal hurts that they suffer. To heal, they need to be listened to. If you are interested in learning more about this, I’d love to be in communication with you.

    Well, I could go on for pages and pages about this. But I would like more to get this off to you in the hope that it will prove useful or helpful to you too.

    You are a brilliant and wise parent/educator. How lucky all those students, parents, and teachers who get/got to be inside your air traffic controlling screen are!

    Thank you so much for writing your book.

    With appreciation,

    Amy Tai

  4. Amy what a wonderful response. I love the way you built on, picked up on and disagreed with my thoughts. I actually agree with your disagreement. Yes, you caught a weakness that I inherited (make that crying go away). But I know you are right. I hope you have read this week’s post: “Learn and leave.” You will see that I agree with you. Also, I am glad that you see that the entire book has diversity and multi-culturalism as a leit-motif. Diversity has been central to my work and you may have read “Diversity, the solution, not the problem in a 1995 issue of the Independent School Journal put out by NAIS.
    So, yes. Let’s keep the conversation going, and spread.
    I feel particularly pasisonate about the place that diversity plays in the collective mind of NAIS. At the conferences it is categorized under “equity and justice.” Even though that’s fair, it’s not smart. Each child, to maximize his or her potential needs to be raised in a culture of diversity; that’s why we do it. IT’s good for all kids.
    Thanks, again.

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