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.
- 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.