If I title a post on parenting teenagers “Learning from their mistakes” you may think that the post will be about getting teenagers to learn from their mistakes. But I’m not so delusional as to give you such hope: I have to assume that teenagers learn from their mistakes because I once was a teenager, I learned from my mistakes, and I am a relatively well adjusted adult. Beyond that, beats me. No, the title of this post refers to what I — the parent — am learning from disciplining my teens in the great adventure of parenting.
When my four oldest children were little, countless well-meaning strangers told me to enjoy them while they were young because once they hit the teenage years it would be all downhill from there. I was never afraid of the teenage years however. I had a happy teenage-hood. I remember getting along well with my parents and my siblings. I had no interest in drugs and alcohol and I had no major academic issues (I had no clue about anything mathematics or scientific but I did get my high school diploma. This suggests that I had enough of a clue to pass whatever it was I had to pass. But it’s still a mystery.) My experience chatting with other parents is that the amount of fear a parent feels toward their children’s upcoming teenage years is directly proportional to the amount of grief they gave their own parents as teenagers. Call it cosmic payback.
Now that we are more firmly rooted in teenage-dom with each passing year (we have two card-carrying teenagers with a third one coming up the pipe) I can say that parenting teenagers — so far — has been an experience in mixed emotions. It’s in equal parts more fun, challenging and infuriating than parenting young children.
It’s more fun because teenagers have a sense of humour. They are quirky, they love a good joke and their malleable brain seems to have an infinite capacity to memorize skits and one-liners. It’s easy to laugh with them (and sometimes at them…). Their sense of humour if often dark and off-kilter and if you don’t take yourself too seriously — because they can give it as well as they take it — you can be in for a good time. I also find that my teenagers are keen observers of human nature without the politically correct varnish that develops with age. A varnish is not always a bad thing but sometimes I wish I still had the ability to call a spade a spade the way my teens do.
It’s more challenging because the stakes are higher. Higher stakes mean that you are under pressure to make the right discipline call at the right time. What do I mean by that? When raising young children, you often make discipline calls that are either bone-headed or counter-productive. Have you ever spanked a child in anger? Hit a child for hitting a sibling? Flew off the handle after catching a liar? Great. Now your child is learning that hitting is a good way to blow off steam, hitting is a good response to injury and that his lying skills need improvement. The consequences of those bad discipline calls are mild. Unless you repeat them regularly over several years, they won’t make your child into violent liar. If the balance of your parenting is loving and forgiving you’ll get another kick at the can in a few days. But teenagers can make mistakes that will hunt them for the rest of their lives: get pregnant, flunk high school and crash a car full of friends. Even if your concerns are of a lesser order of magnitude — as mine are, thank God — you still need to be on the ball and ready to roll. Your teen is flunking high school math because he couldn’t be bothered? Sure you can take his iPod away for a week. He still flunked math. And closed the door to every paycheque-friendly faculty, like engineering, medicine, business, dentistry, you name it! I don’t want my teens to learn a life-lesson from flunking math and science out of sheer laziness: I want them to succeed. If they decide to get an English major, it won’t be because nobody else would let them in. Get it? Stakes, higher.
It’s more frustrating because teens push your buttons at a more adult level and really bring you face to face with your shortcomings as a parent. When you lose your “composure” at a 3 year-old, they still come to you for comfort. When you fly off the handle and start ranting at a teenager (two big teenage no-nos, don’t ask me how I know), they think you’re a loser. (Now, if you have done your job right up to this point, your teenagers will know better than to tell you to your face — although my son has been known to exhibit a death wish in that regard: the kid has no filter.) What really rounds-up the challenging and frustrating parts is the well-documented fact that teens really think that they have reached the apogee of knowledge and good judgement. Now, if you reach the apogee of knowledge and good judgement at 15, and the only way from an apogee is down, you can imagine where, in a teen’s mind, the parent is situated on the apogee-to-perigee-continuum: it takes 15 years to get to the top, and it’s all downhill from there, and you are say, almost 40, it means that you’ve been on a downward trajectory from knowledge and good judgement for, like… (40 – 15 = uh…) 25-ish years, rounded-up to the nearest brain fart.
Teenagers challenge, push buttons and seek out limits. Sometimes, you will blow it as a parent and they will let you know. But sometimes you will be right… and they will still challenge, push buttons and explain to you why you are wrong, wrong, wrong. The high-wire number is to know when to stand firm and when to go hat in hand apologize for your mistakes. The first thing I learned from parenting teens is to take a step back and take a deep breath. Unless your child is at the police station right now it never hurts to put a little time between you and an issue (and even then, spending the night in prison might not be an entirely bad thing…). The second lesson I learned, which flows from the first one, is to lower your voice, ideally to the point where you are not saying any words. It never hurts to hear a teenager’s grievance. Sometimes they may be right! Just don’t confuse listening with arguing or agreeing. For instance, we have a strict, unbending and controversial no-sleepover rule. This is not popular with my oldest daughter. Listening to her grievance and why we are wrong, wrong, wrong will not make me agree with her. Nor will I argue for the zillionth time why this is so. But it doesn’t hurt to sit down and hear her out. Again.
In part 2 of this post,I will tell you about a discipline tool I took too long to get out of the toolbox: the essay.