Raising Teenagers For Dummies (Like Me)




Tom Matlack thinks about how to best raise his kids all day long, even now that they’ve grown into teens. Here are some of his insights.

Let me first talk about this from a dad’s perspective, but I’d be interested to know if moms agree with my conclusions—which are always a work in progress. My big kids (18 and 16) are also part of our blended family. Their mother and I got divorced when they were babies. So that influenced their experience, and mine, throughout. I also realize that every child is different inside a family—my boy who is a high school junior and girl who is now a freshman in college certainly are—as well as different from family to family. So who knows if my experience will have any bearing on yours. But I offer it up as the blind attempting to lead the blind. At least we don’t have to be alone in our adoration and frustrations of our kids. Finally, I’m going to try to steer clear of any incriminating details below since it would obliterate any iota of cred I have with my kids at this point.

Some thoughts:

  • Adolescence is all about rebellion and experimentation. In a world of helicopter parenting, teenagers today are screwed. They have to rebel in more extreme ways to get out of the clutches of parents who are used to watching them every waking hour of every day. Within reason, step back.
  • The core issue in parenting a teenager is honesty. They are going to lie to you, unless your kid is some kind of saint. The question is how serious is the lie and what you as a parent are going to do about it. The more you can show love instead of anger the better chance you have of turning mistakes into growth opportunities.
  • Tone of voice matters more than anything else dealing with tough stuff. Try to stay calm even when you want get out a nuclear warhead. Anger or frustration or just plain hurt feelings expressed in a neutral voice is a lot more effective than hysteria. Drama is bad. Straight talk is good.
  • In a world of hyper-competitiveness, it’s easy for a teenager to felt badly about themselves if they are not a soon-to-be Nobel Laureate or NBA lottery pick. We live in a world of amazing specialization happening at younger and younger ages. I think it’s important to raise teenagers with an emphasis on being well-rounded young men and women of character and to celebrate their passions. It’s the process of the things they love that count, not the grade or the score.
  • Little kids mimic their parents. They walk like we walk and talk like we talk. It’s easy to forget that rebellious teenagers are watching with hawk-eyes too. If you are going to tell your kids not to get wasted, don’t get wasted in front of them. Sounds simple, but I am amazed by the hypocrisy I see in others and, if I am honest, in myself.
  • I’m not a big fan of punishments that just inflict pain for no reason. I am a much bigger proponent of inflicting pain that has the side benefit of constructive learning and positive momentum in a kids’ life. Grounding a kid and having them stare a wall is pointless. Having them do 80 hours of community service helps someone else and, just maybe, the kid. Writing an essay about what happened, why, and what a better choice would have been is another alternative that can be helpful.
  • Sex, booze and drugs are areas that every parent is going to have a different point of view about. But you can’t ignore them and hope that the issues will go away. It’s the heart and soul of the teenage challenge. Anything you can do to help them navigate through those things in a productive and healthy way is good. And when they stumble, try to focus on education rather than anger.
  • Just when you think you are out of the woods as a parent, it’s about to get worse. A lot worse. Don’t be fooled by the eye of the storm that will occasionally pass over your household.
  • I tend to think that trying to force your kids to love the things you love doesn’t often work. Read Andre Agassi’s book about tennis (and how much he hated it all along) to see why. Personally, I find parental pressure around specific achievement goals to be counter-productive at best. I think kids are like diamonds in the rough. Each is unique and will find their own way to shine if you get out of the way and let them. It might be something you know a lot about or something that is completely foreign (says the dad who was raised as a Quaker pacifist whose son has his heart set on going to West Point).
  • Coming back to tone of voice, I think it is important to never lose sight of how much you love your kids even when you are furious at their behavior. If you use a level tone of voice it’s a lot easier to dish out hard-ass consequences for dumb mistakes, while still making clear that no mistake is so large that your love is in jeopardy.
  • At some point, I think it’s important to start treating teenagers as adults. Every kid is different, but at a certain point the expectations change. Childish behavior can be excused, punished and forgiven up to a point. Then it has to stop. A specific conversation about this is a good idea.
  • Celebrate and love at every opportunity. Making clear how proud you are when even a little thing goes well can have a lasting impact.

That’s all I got. Like I said, this is a partial list one idiot parent to another. I would love to hear what tips you have to share with me and other moms and dads struggling through the rigors, and amazing gift, of raising teenagers.

About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. I am living with 4 teens – 5 if you count my husband :). Raising teens is hard and your advice is excellent! It is a balancing act between creating rules and consequences and letting them branch out on their own. It’s about teaching them to be strong and independent and speak their voice – and keeping them alive. We have rules and when rules are breached, our trust is breached. But the types of consequences they experience are ones in which they deal with the consequences of their decisions. It’s not just flat-out punishment from us. I think that is the most important part of the teen years. To allow them to make decisions – and make mistakes. But then they deal with their mistakes. We are not afraid to share our feelings – sometimes there were many tears shed. But we all learned and grew from the experiences. It has been a pleasure to see my son grow into a young man. He even advises his 13 year old brother not to make the same mistakes he did. I can hope…

    There was a step change in my life when the kids transitioned to the teen years. Gone were the days of 8 o’clock bedtimes and control over activities. Suddenly it was activities, teens in the house, kids coming and going at various times….that alone adds to stress! But I learned to embrace it. To enjoy the times I got to spend with kids here – talking to their friends – being interested in them.

    I agree that there is specialization at such a young age. When we were kids, we just played! Now kids are starting businesses! If it’s my kid’s passion, then I will support it. But I’m not going to force my kids to follow in my footprints. I tried that. My husband and I thought my oldest would make a great engineer. He truly has an engineering mind. But after looking at schools he said he wanted to study jazz piano. We supported that and are enjoying watching him grow as a young man and musician!

  2. The best advice I’ve ever been given was to disassociate behavior from emotion. All emotion is okay, because it’s not something any one of us can control. It’s the behavior we choose in response to the emotion that separates children from adults. Which is my way of saying I completely agree with you when you say to speak calmly even when you’re mad. My mother never could do that, and it always made me feel like she was more of a child than I was, especially as she’s never mastered the idea of proportional response. She’d work herself into a lather over unwashed dishes just as much as she did over my failing an exam. I’d call inconsistency and unfairness some of the worst traits in a parent.

  3. oooppss sent before ready! tumultuous

  4. Thank you for this honest and parent to parent discussion. I have three teenage daughters and all they want to do is move away from me (emotionally ) and I’m ok with that adn I understand it but… chores still need to be done even if it is is summer holidays! Each teenager is different and no size fits all. It is also hard to find a punishment for bad tempered outbursts when one child enjoys hiding away in her room and as no mobile phone! Raising teenage girls is ongoing up and down roller coaster ride but as I reflected only last night , as I could not sleep due to that bad-tempered outburst, I would always choose to have children. What currently keeps me going is that I am sure in their 20s they will be my friend… mmmmm maybe…
    One last point my husband is a gem and worth his weight in gold. Who do teenage girls want to talk to when they are moving away from their mother… their father of course – the calm voice of reason in tumbulous waters.

  5. Tom. I am the parent of three daughters, now ages 23, 22 and 20. All are at or finished University on both their dime and ours, and looking forward to or in the middle of some world travel. Their Dad and I separated ten years ago but made a conscious decision to always put their best interests first and that included how we spoke about each other in front of them. As far as I can tell they are well adjusted, outgoing and resilient. Still, and though I do not regret our separation, as I perused old photos today a dagger pierced my heart seeing the innocence in their eyes, their child antics and their young selves from ten years ago. In the midst of living we cannot see the forest for the trees. Life is a challenge and most often you just do the best you can.

    Here’s what I know: There are a million different ways to raise bright well adjusted children.
    It’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters.
    It’s not quality time, it’s quantity time and that goes from birth to well, forever. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone to return a ‘hello’ when they walk in the door. Look at them when they are talking as much as possible (and sometimes it isn’t very possible)
    You can’t beat road trips for bonding. My girls would choose a road trip over a plane any day now and harbor their best memories from our journeys with the dog in tow, car laden, counting the mile markers, sharing music, map navigating and wondering if we were going to make it to the next gas station.

    They don’t want advice, they want hugs, they want boundaries and they want to be heard. And it’s a fine line. Their bullshit detectors are razor sharp.

    They want you to have your own life so they can be okay having theirs.

    One of the hardest and most necessary things is for affluent parents to find a way to let their children experience adversity and “doing without.”

    They need you to back off on the little things, like how they dress and how they wear their hair so you can clamp down on the big things like insisting they get a job, replace their own lost or damaged cell phones and understand that nothing good happens after two a.m. Nothing.

    Doors should not need to be locked. To enter another’s room is theft of privacy and the respect that requires should have been earned years and years earlier.

    Loud voices, screaming and rage hurts. Everyone involved. Girls in particular, at least in my experience, need to learn the power of anger and the way it is best served.

    One of the nicest things I ever heard my girls say was how much they admired watching me follow my passion despite the odds of success, despite my age, and despite the opinion of the crowd.

    Parenting at any age, ranks up there with some of the toughest jobs around. Nothing that I know of demands as much but done well, nothing also deposits as much or as little ‘money in the bank’. It never stops being a beautiful conundrum.

    • crystal carpenter says:

      I couldn’t agree more. i am a mother of a 34 daughter who has her 5 yr old girl and a 18 girl and 14 boy stepchildren. My baby is going to be 30 tmrw! OMG im old and his son is 11. One thing i did right is thank my kids for all the good they did. my daughter would walk in the house and i would hug her and thank her for being such a good kid…her response…”ok what friends kid screwed up now” i never thought or acted like my kids were perfect and could do no wrong…but i also told them when they made decisions i thought were adult and responsible. i always told them that some things were just an adult thing and they would love it when they are an adult but for now they are not adults so they cant do it. have ice cream sundays for dinner one night every other month just cz and dance in the kitchen to really loud music at least once a week. they’ll shake their heads at you….but this is what my kids remeber about their childhood w me.

  6. “At some point, I think it’s important to treat teens like adults…”

    So true….sometimes my 12 yo son corrects my ridiculous immature behavior when I am telling a silly joke or doing a dumb impression of someone on the train….(roll of the eyes….”Mom….!”)…

    My son has taught me a lot about American history and The Constitution as we review material for his Social Studies class (“Mom….Lincoln had an allegedly gay relationship before he got engaged to Mary Todd….[roll of the eyes] …I didn’t make this up…I saw it on the History Channel!”)….

    Sometimes my husband and I will have big discussions about politics, the economy, or serious problems we see in our friends/family….my son will suddenly pipe in with a question or his input…and sometimes he surprises me with his reasonable, measured response….

  7. Michael Philp says:

    I love this list, and would only add that it’s important to be aware of your body language as well as your tone of voice. I speak from the perspective of a son who knows his mother loves him, but struggles sometimes with the ways she expresses her emotions. My mother has stood over me and pointed her finger as if I were a naughty toddler, which has the effect of telling me that I’m not worthy of being treated like an adult. It doesn’t matter that it was one mistake, the way she disciplined me made me feel like all of my efforts were for nil – if I try my hardest to act like an adult 90% of the time, but get treated like a child anyway, what’s the point? I know this is the plight of many teenagers, and I truly believe that with a little more awareness of how our body language affects the message we send, both sides will benefit immensely.
    And for the record, I’m not some 12 year old who’s trying to act a lot older than he is, I’m 19 and my mother has been assisting me into adulthood for some time now, which is why it stung so much when she made me feel like a toddler.

    • Tom Matlack says:

      Michael thanks so much for the praise, which means that much more coming from the other side of the parent/teenage divide. It sounds like you are an amazing young man.

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