If you have a teenager, if you are a teenager, or if know a teenager, you need to read this Declaration of Teenage Independence.
My wife and I have been having a discussion for months. Our teenage son bargains, begs for, and sometimes demands more independence. I believe that freedom needs to be earned, but when is it time to loosen the reins?
When teenagers crest the fifteen year mark, they begin to taste the freedom. Every time you give them a little more, it just adds fuel to the fire. Freedom needs boundaries; too much freedom, without a matching sense of responsibility is unhealthy.
In raising a teenager, mistakes teach limits. Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. If our son is honest, he will tell you that his parents have a lot to learn and he might have a little bit to learn. He’s right, but he needs to work on his fractions. Gotta love the teenage years.
There is no fool-proof system for giving the right amount of freedom. It’s more of a fool-acceptance system: We know we are going to make mistakes and as long as we accept that parenting is basically an experiment, we will all make it out alive. What follows is a declaration of what it takes for teenagers and their parents to navigate the give and take world of teenage independence.
The Declaration of Teenage Independence: Freedom granted based on lessons learned.
- Choice of friends. He has told us that some of his friends use drugs and some friends blow off school. When he is at school, we trust him to be discerning. We try to guide him by asking him questions. We regularly ask what he is doing with his friends and we try to meet them whenever we can. When he is at school, he has freedom to spend time with whomever he chooses. Our influence comes by supporting him to evaluate for himself how good these good friends really are.
- Musical taste. His music is pretty much his own turf, but we draw the limit with death, drugs and sex. A year ago I asked him to do a research paper on a band that he liked so that he could understand their beliefs and philosophy. My hope is that he will learn to be discerning while he enjoys his music. The jury is still out on that one.
- Spiritual beliefs. Our family attends church and our son is not sure what he believes. Part of him is an atheist (no God) and another part is agnostic (God exists but she’s busy). The fact that he even knows about these concepts is impressive. We give him freedom to question his and our own beliefs. Sometimes his questions turn into criticism and we have to draw the line.
- Learning from poor decisions. He has made his share of mistakes. After a mistake we talk about what he has done, the consequences, and (hopefully) what he can learn from it. The learning piece can be difficult. Sometimes he does not want to talk, because he hates the lecture. The rational part of my brain knows that lectures don’t work, but the emotional part thinks: Lecture = learning. Most times a quiet conversation with a lot of listening work way better than a ‘discussion.’
- School marks. As a parent, you see the potential in your teen. You know that if they work a little harder, they will do better. For some teenagers, they are satisfied with whatever they get. Both my wife and I value school because it can expand your world view and provide opportunities. When parents expect better and teens accept ‘whatever,’ that can result in conflict. Motivation is primarily an inside job, and as a parent, you have about a 10-15% influence on that. Marks are not a motivator for some kids. No matter what, kids need their parents to support them, affirm the work they are doing, and celebrate their successes.
- Parties. So far this one is a no-go. We expect that we know the parents before we let him go for parties. Undersupervised parties can be avenues for substance use and sex, and this can change a person’s life in a negative way.
The Imperfect Parents’ Guide to the Galaxy Called Freedom
- Struggle teaches more than lecture. Saving a kid from consequences is as bad as keeping a failure alive through constant reminder. When they struggle and you listen, that can lead to more lasting change.
- Love is unconditional, but trust has strings attached. This is a hard one. I am more of a softie and I want to relax and trust him. But when I get hurt, the walls go up. Trust takes work on both sides. Teenagers build trust when they show effort, follow through and consistency. Parents need to give credit to the work their teens are doing and allow teens to rebuild trust.
- Accept that they are trying things out for themselves. The teenage years are a little like going shopping for a car: you need to try things out for yourself. Over the years, his musical interests have ranged from instrumental to electronic to pop and now metal. For most of his life, he agreed with our spiritual beliefs and now he is trying out different beliefs. I have to have faith that he will work things out with his mother and I are his guides.
- Having fun rocks. Being available and having non-lesson, lecture free time works wonders. Going out for a coffee, an ice cream, a movie or doing something teenagers like seems to earn parents a little more credibility. Having fun allows us to take a vacation from responsibility talk, which can be overwhelming.
- Good questions can wake up a teenagers brain, but they need to be combined with a light hearted openness. This can be tough when conversations become emotional.
- Tell stories about how you navigated through difficult decision rather than tell them how to live their lives.
- At the end of the day you have a relationship with your child, not with your rules. Kid comes first, rules are secondary (but still important). When I see that my relationship with either of my kids is slipping, that triggers me to spend more one on one time with them.
- Don’t worry alone. If you are struggling with parenting, talk to a trusted friend or a counsellor. It’s hard work these days to be a parent and no one can do it alone.
At the Good Men Project, we are your tribe: Imperfect but growing, messy but supportive, and hard working but loving. You don’t have to be a man to join, just know that this is a place for men and about stuff that men care about.
Keep it Real
Photo by David Robert Bliwas