Teenagers, grumble grumble. Self-indulging, self-centred grumble grumble. Give them an inch grumble snort. Can’t stand on their own two feet, grumble, bah.
I came across a popular blog post this week about things you should stop doing for your teenagers right now. “How can we raise competent adults if we’re always doing everything for our kids” is the heart of the question.
It’s an excellent question. One that is front and centre in the minds of thoughtful parents. We don’t always know what we’re doing or where we’re going but we sure have a general idea of where we would like to end up.
I often tell parents of young children that it takes some effort to ruin a kid — a lot more than loving concern over which baby cereal to start with — and the same can be said about teenagers. We don’t suddenly wake-up to a self-indulging, basement-dwelling hermit or a rude disrespectful potty-mouth: a modicum of situational awareness goes a long way in noticing trends in our growing children’s behaviours.
It takes some effort to ruin a childhood and helpless teenagers are not born they are made. As with anything parenting, intentions and motives matter and I’m ready to bet the farm that you can bring your teenagers their shoes twice a week for 5 years and still turn out a productive member of society. As I am sure that some parents let their teenagers fail classes, wear dirty clothes and go hungry with less-than-stellar results.
When it comes to forming our children’s characters and habits, our actions matters as much — if not more — than our principles. This is why when given the opportunity I always err on the side of showing a spirit of generosity and service.
Here are the 8 things that I should stop doing for my teenage kids but still do, time and weather permitting:
1. Waking them up in the morning. In Hold on to your kids, Gordon Neufeld writes about the importance of “collecting” our children in the morning. It’s hard to forget when the children are little and wake-up whiny and unsettled: we take a few minutes to cuddle with them before they are ready to digest their breakfast. The practice of starting the day off on a friendly note shouldn’t stop when the children grow up. Waking up our teenagers gently, physically touching them to rouse them from sleep, saying good morning, sets the day off on a good note even if they hate being woken up. It tells them that no matter what happened the night before, no matter what argument we might have had, every day is a new day. There is also something to be said for going into their rooms once a day to remind them to bring up their dirty dishes… The world — in the form of their first job — will teach them soon enough to wake-up on their own.
2. Make breakfast. I can’t make breakfast for the family every day but I would love to. Countless research has linked shared mealtimes with healthier eating habits, lower incidence of disordered eating, better psychological well-being, lower incidence of obesity and improved family relationships. We usually think of the family dinner as “the family meal” but between part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and different school schedules, my family is rarely together at dinner time. However, my family often meets in the kitchen in the morning. Teenagers are as sensitive to regular and healthy meal times as 3 year-olds and it’s a lot harder to be rude to someone who just put a plate of bacon in front of your face. The next time your teen is having a “moment” try saying “Here’s a sandwich” instead of “what the hell is your problem” and watch magic happen.
3. Fill out their paperwork. Confession: I’m the worst deadbeat when it comes to paperwork. By grade 6 I have trained my children to fill out their own paperwork by sheer force of inertia. That said, the world of death and especially taxes will teach my children the cost of not filing paperwork in a timely manner. I have no doubt about it. What’s so wrong with learning by (not) doing? They can forget to fill out their passport applications and miss their flight on their own dime. As long as my signature goes on the dotted line, I’ll make sure the paperwork is filled as it should.
4. Delivering their forgotten items. Whereas most parents see this as bailing out their children, I see it as an opportunity to connect midday. We live 20km away from the school: I don’t do special trips to deliver forgotten items; but if I’m running errands or somehow driving by, I make it my pleasure to rescue them from shame and starvation. I sometimes even bring them coffee. Way to reinforce forgetful behaviour or to show my teenagers that I’m in their corner? Your pick.
5. Making their failure to plan my emergency. Our teenagers can’t count on parents being able to bail them out if they don’t plan their work carefully. They are very aware of the constraints caused by living in the boonies with a bunch of young kids. But if we can help, we will. It may mean that a parent or grown child will pick up some items on their way home. Or I may reorganize a necessary grocery run to accommodate their last-minute errands. Yes it’s a failure to plan. But in our family, we prefer to err on the side of being helpful.
6. Doing all of their laundries. In our family, the teenagers have their own washer and dryer, meaning that I never see their laundry. But when our entire family was using the same set of appliances — as most people do — I did all the laundry. I don’t know in which universe having 5 kids washing 6 items of clothing each is a time-saving proposition but in this universe, it’s a logistical nightmare. It’s not like I’m washing it by hand in the stream. I open the door, throw laundry in (at this point whether I’m washing 25 pieces of clothing or 30 is almost irrelevant) and start the machine. Magic.
7. Emailing and calling their teachers and coaches. This may seem counter-intuitive but having good lines of communications and a cordial rapport with your children’s teachers and coaches is good policy (who would have thunk?). Blame Gordon Neufeld for making sense again: parents, teachers, and coaches should be working as a team. Having open lines of communications doesn’t mean that we pre-manage every issue that arises between our children and their teachers or coaches, but it means that we have a better chance of seeing something coming and handling it in a concerted manner. It also means that the one time your child is treated unfairly by a teacher or a coach, you will see it coming and will be able to support your child through it. In our family “support” means that we help our teenagers make sense of a difficult situation in ways that are mature and constructive.
8. Meddling in their academics. We keep a close eye on our children’s academic results and outputs. We don’t do their work for them and we don’t ask teachers for favours. But keeping a finger on the academic pulse of our teenagers can help us identify areas of concern early. Early detection: it works for school just as it works for prostates. When would you rather find out that your teenager needs tutoring or remedial help in chemistry? When they flunk the first quiz or when they flunk their semester? There are many ways in which we raise our children and helping them understand the importance of hard work can be done on the job. There is no teaching value in watching them fail in high school. Yes they have to learn how to work but it can be done by helping them develop good work habits instead of letting them fail and curtail their post-secondary opportunities.
While it’s true that what we teach our children to do themselves will determine their success as adults, it’s about more than packing their backpacks and making their breakfasts: it’s about teaching them to self-regulate, to give of themselves, to prioritize relationships over things.
Emotional intelligence and resilience are the skills that set our children up for success in their adult lives and relationships, not lunch-making.