How do you let your teens know you understand the unique situations they find themselves in without confessing titillating details of your own past?
Saturday night. Our family was seated in the living room, my SO, daughter and the center of attention, my son. Our heads had swiveled in his direction and my other, the Otter, as I call him, had requested that Colton run upstairs and retrieve the real party invitation he had received from his friend Cat. Apparently, Cat’s parents were out of town (the child had at least been honest about that) and a big, ol’ bash was in the works. Colton, in his infinite 17-year old wisdom had decided to create a mock invitation, unaware the Otter had already spied the original floating around his room. Strangely, the details turned out differently between Cat’s invitation and Colton’s. So we were questioning him on it, as Lauren, 14 and a sponge, narrowed her gaze at her brother, secretly delighting he had been busted. Colton eventually fetched the fake invite and brought it downstairs, where it was proffered solemnly. What a surprise, he didn’t wind up attending the party, but he did get points taken off his discipline for disclosing there would have been drinking.
We encourage honesty, but then, what to do with it, and when do we make it a two-way street with our children? Throughout the children’s childhood, I have told them they needed to meet me halfway. If they have goals, prized technology, additional freedom they want, we expect them to work for it, to remain dedicated and consistent in their efforts to achieve the goal. The same is anticipated when our children talk about social situations they might encounter as teens. I am so honored that the kids feel like they can share what really goes on. They can sit down with us and ask difficult questions (we’d sometimes rather not hear!) But that is why mankind was bequeathed with the gift of wine.
So we talked about it, likely ad nauseum, because this is a hard one. How do you let your teens know you understand the unique situations they find themselves in without confessing titillating details of your own past? We wanted to bridge this connection.
Even though Colton fessed up to the true nature of the party he’d planned on attending, we still retained the right as his parents to say no. And we did. We refused to let him go. It meant taking a chance that he would turn dishonest at some point, that he would think no benefit existed to being forthright. It’s one of those times you have to rely on the faith of every experience you gave them in their childhood, what you taught them, if your discipline was fair, if you worked to open the channels of communication. It is one of those moments when you might encourage a tiny bit of flight from the nest. There will be more and the time out of the nest will increase in duration as they get older, it’s how we let go.
Accompanying the talk about the value of telling the truth and the reminder of why we make decisions for the right reasons, we also opened up to our children the slightest bit about our own pasts. We did and do understand our son’s temptations better than our son has any idea and felt it was important he knew that —as veterans of the high school party life and survivors of record stupid antics— we were still careful. But gruelingly truthful. What does it feel like to be drunk? Well…hmmm…not the greatest and mommy doesn’t like to be out of control, although a few sips of wine can make you feel nice and warm. Have you ever been hungover? Yep. Not a fond memory, the Otter chimed in, kind of like having the stomach flu. So why do people drink, the kids wanted to know.
It’s a challenging question to answer. Some people drink because they like the taste. Some because they want to escape, others to be social. Drinking is okay in moderation. Just like everything we’ve talked about. Oh have we have talked about it all. Eating disorders. Coming out. How long does a first period last? Why do my boobs hurt? Keep your body and hands to yourself and yes, masturbation is normal. We just don’t want the details, okay?
Here’s the pinnacle. Mistakes happen. People make poor choices sometimes. Teens won’t always feel strong, or able to follow their parents’ directives to stay safe. In those moments, help your teens to make a plan. First, know anything illegal is never supported. If you get caught, you will be disciplined, kiddo. Second, if you can’t say no one night, don’t go crazy! Choose moderation. Stay safe. Never drive. Never get in a car with someone who’s been drinking. Be ready to accept adult responsibility for your actions, which usually have a domino effect on your life. This is a great place to launch into how it would feel to sleep in the klink for a night, court costs, the impact committing this crime would have on their social life. Drinking also leads to other mischief and ideas that sound brilliant, but people quickly figure out adding laundry soap to a public fountain can result in unwanted police attention.
Expanding this avenue of communication ensured the kids will and do approach us when their burgeoning adult world turns scary. A friend who’s pregnant. Another who was expelled for selling drugs. A girl, labeled a slut. When their heart hurts, you can make a difference to your teenager, they will want to hear you out because they will know implicitly, you have their back.. It’s not a fail-safe to get it right every time and as parents we will always have questions, always feel the slightest bit ancient and sick as we mitigate new threats in social media and sexting. Hey, we’re learning right alongside them.
Whenever possible we try to ensure our kids experience natural and not artificial consequences as well, a concept taught to us by our eldest’s fifth grade teacher. An example of discipline through natural consequences: if you get angry and break your pool noodle, you are unable to use it. Contrived discipline reads: If you are angry and break your pool noodle you will have to wash the dishes. Applying this parenting philosophy has helped us tremendously. Natural consequences have a higher retention rate and tend to resonate more with your child so they are less likely to repeat the infraction in the future.
It’s vital to realize we cannot stop our children from hurting, or questioning and we shouldn’t want to. Experiencing the pain and uncertainty of growing up helps to build a solid foundation of self-assuredness, one which your child can refer to later. You’ll gloss over some issues, dig into others and periodically watch your kids navigate the world all by themselves.
Of course, there are limits and appropriateness to your honesty. Yes, I tried weed. It was a waste of time and I figured out there were better things to do with my friends, I comment before embarking on tales of people I knew back when who did drugs and how seriously mentally ill they are today. Because their brains were still developing. As yours are. Can you imagine? I say as I bring my coffee to my lips. From the looks on their faces it seems they can. While we may point out the decisions we made and share our regrets, we don’t see the benefit of rehashing old, destructive memories with our kids. They don’t need the inspiration!
Abbreviated honesty, when raising teenagers, is truly the best policy.
Original article appeared at The Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission.
Unedited Photo: Flickr/Tambako the Jaguar