Preparing for Teen Parenting
In his book entitled "Teen-Proofing", psychologist John Rosemond talks about the work that goes into parenting before children become teens. His point is that if you do the hard work of parenting when your children are young, you will have less problems when they reach the teen years. I can highly recommend his no nonsense approach to parenting. He is a family psychologist who has rejected much of modern psychology's notions of parenting in favor of more common sense and traditional ideas about raising children. Much of this chapter is a brief synopsis of the first section of his book.
One hundred years ago there was no such thing as "teen culture" (adolescents with income, media devoted to teens, marketing/products directed exclusively to teens and pre-teens, youth ministers, counselors specializing in this age group). What we have created in the last century is a significant portion of society that has an enormous expectation of leisure, freedom and buying power without the corresponding checks and balances of accountability, responsibility and productivity. This amounts to approximately eight years of expensive parental maintenance with little return.
It was not always this way. The teens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries spent their time integrated into the family as junior partners in helping maintain their homes. It was common in my father's day that young people this age worked after school and summers to provide additional income for their families. Fathers taught sons a trade, schooled them about the family business or farm, and daughters learned and practiced home-making skills alongside their mothers.
I am not saying that we have to go back to this because times have changed, and so has the makeup of families and work. What I am saying is that with an evolution to "teen culture" we have created a generation of young people who are, as Dr. Rosemond says, "emotional toddler[s]... irresponsible, narcissistic, and oblivious to risk (i.e. Just do it! Why not?)." It is not that you, the parents (especially Christian parents) want them to be this way, it is that without serious parental intervention, this is how today's society will turn them out. Modern American culture is not a good partner when it comes to raising Christian children.
The moral shift in our society is evident as sexual practices considered unacceptable 50 years ago are now seen as morally neutral. A recent example of this happened to a teenaged girl (a member of the church where I was preaching at the time) who complained that two girls kissing romantically in the hallway at school was improper. To her surprise she was accused of being prejudiced against the gay lifestyle and was the only one censured by the school in connection with this incident. Today, teens exchange sexually suggestive or explicit pictures of themselves using their phones or computers and see this as "no big deal." Modern youth culture not only accepts, it applauds sexual freedom and diversity.
Our education system has, in many cases, weakened or eliminated its disciplinary practices. Teachers complain that it is nearly impossible to effectively discipline disruptive or non-compliant students because of the threat of lawsuits by the parents or reprimands by their superiors. It is very hard to maintain proper discipline in the home when this notion barely exists in the classroom.
The fact that teenagers are now coveted consumers also adds a degree of difficulty to parenting that was not present in previous generations. Parents cannot keep up with the demands of their children who are stimulated by the constant marketing barrage of the media. Eight year olds want their own cell phones and teens believe that having and driving their own car at 16 is a "right," not a privilege and great responsibility. I remember our eldest daughter's embarrassment and pain when on the second day at a new school she was attending, a girl in her class asked her why she wore the same jeans two days in a row. For a 14 year old girl, this kind of "fashion shaming" was enough to make her want to change schools or upgrade her wardrobe. Fortunately, she used this episode as motivation to develop her own particular style in clothing (as opposed to having lots of clothes) since her father's means as a minister did not permit a big shopping budget.
As I stated previously, raising children is difficult in this type of social environment. When children reach their teen years parents want to prevent them from becoming secretive, argumentative, defiant or fall in with the wrong crowd. They fear their children will begin using drugs and alcohol, become sexually active or run away, perhaps harm themselves, take foolish risks and, oh yes, become depressed or even worse, suicidal. Have I managed to cover all the fears that parents have about their teens?
Instead of worrying about the terrible things that might happen to our adolescent children, what we should do while they are still young is develop a parenting model that will eventually produce two things when they do become teens:
- Parenting that develops their character in such a way that they will take progressive and responsible control of their lives as they enter and grow through adolescence.
- Parenting that helps them make self-protective rather than self-destructive decisions as teenagers.
These are the "Holy Grail" of teen parenting, but the work to achieve these two goals begins long before a child becomes a teenager.
Basic Child Development
There are three basic stages that children go through before they become adults, and how we parent them during these periods will have an impact on what kind of people they become. I want to briefly go over the first two stages because how we parent during this period will largely determine the experience we, as parents, have when they become teenagers.
Stage #1 - Infancy and Early Toddlerhood (0-3 years)
During the first two years of life the child is treated like he was the center of the universe. Total strangers kneel before his throne just to get a smile. Parents are there to serve and fulfill needs quickly. This is normal because the child needs caring for and is only aware of his own central position in the world.
At around two years of age a revolution takes place. Parents begin (or should begin) to shift roles from caretakers to authority figures. At this point they start to teach right from wrong, obedience and begin to practice consistent discipline. We usually call this time the "terrible twos" because the child does not like this new order of things where Mommy says "no" five hundred times a day. The change that must take place is that the child will no longer be at the center of his universe, the parent will now occupy this position.
From now on the child will pay more attention to the parent (respond to/accommodate) than the parent towards the child (cater to/cave-in to). From about two years onwards the child must be made to understand that the parent is in charge, not the child. You know this is taking place when the child makes the parents the center of his attention, looks to them for definitions of right and wrong, feels secure that his parents are able, willing and actively taking care of and protecting him, seeks their approval (seeks to please them) and finds his identity within the family (big brother, mommy helper, daddy's girl) and not within his needs and wants. As I have already stated, at this stage the goal for parents is to go from caretaker to authority figure. Of course, we are still caring for and nurturing our child, but we are adding the dominant element of authority to the mix.
Unfortunately, many parents are unwilling to pay the price necessary to force their children from one stage to the other. They fail to apply the pressure needed to force the unwilling child out of infantile self-centeredness. They cater, cave-in, give up or let daycare handle it. The results are seen in children who are self-centered, selfish, undisciplined and anti-social.
I tell our youngest daughter (who has a six year old, a three year old and a one year old) that she is at the bricklaying stage of parenting. Much like the task of laying brick, dealing with children going through this transition is hard physically, tedious and seemingly endless. But every, "No," every disciplinary action seen to the end and every repetition of the rules is like laying one brick. Eventually the 10,000 bricks you have carefully laid form a solid structure, something that can withstand pressure and be used as a foundation for future construction. If you persevere in this task during this period, you will have well prepared your child for the next stage of development.
Stage #2 - Early and Middle Childhood (3-11 years)
There are goals in parenting children at every stage of their development. When we are confused, tired and feel defeated, we should review these goals so we can be reminded of the things that we are trying to accomplish as parents. Of course, sometimes our strategies might change (the things we do to reach our goals), but the goals always remain the same. For example, the goal in the toddler stage is to establish your authority along with your child's positive and steady response to it. Your strategy to achieve this may have to change from time to time. Case in point, if "time out" is not working, go to some other form of discipline. I remember as an eight year old that when all else failed, my mother would have me put on my pyjamas in the middle of the day and send me to stay on my bed without any books, toys or other amusements. There was no set time, I simply had to sit there and wait until she decided that my pyjama time was over. This sometimes lasted an hour or more. This strategy to obtain my compliance to her rules got my attention, she did not even have to raise her voice.
In the next stage of development, which is the early and middle childhood stage, there are several other goals that you are aiming for. Rosemond says, "During infancy and early toddlerhood parents are responsible mostly to their children. Now (during early and middle childhood) parents are responsible to both their children and to the rest of us." What he is referring to here is the goal of properly socializing children so they will be able to interact with others outside the family circle. I am not going to provide strategies for this here since they are different from child to child, but the following are the goals to aim for. By the time your child enters adolescence, he or she should have learned the following principles:
- You, the child, are completely responsible for the choices you make. God has given you free-will and the exercise of that free-will largely determines what happens to you. Parents need to reinforce the idea that their childrens' behavior is due to their own choices, not their genes, their father's alcoholism, mom's cancer, or the fact that the family has too much money or is on welfare. In the end, the choices they make are very important, and they have to take ownership. For example, "You ate all your candy before the movie? No candy during the movie. Your choice!"
- If you make bad choices, sooner or later bad things will happen as a result. The religious instruction we give our children lays the groundwork for this truth, but we can reinforce it in every day circumstances by not always covering their losses brought about by their bad decisions. For example, a mom warns her daughter not to leave her bike in the yard at night since it might be stolen. Nothing happens for months (when she leaves it out due to neglect or laziness) and then one morning it is gone, and it happens to be one day before the big "bike-a-thon" at school. If the parents cover her loss (i.e. they buy her a new bike so she won't miss the bike event at school) instead of letting her own her loss, they begin "enabling" her instead of teaching her a valuable lesson. If this child does not learn that bad choices bring bad consequences at this early stage, imagine the problems awaiting her when she is a teen and driving her mother's car!
- If you make good choices, bad things are less likely to happen. This is the hardest lesson of all because it teaches children about sin, the imperfect world and the problem of suffering. Unfortunately, the message they often hear in school is that if you do something good, you deserve something good in return. This would be nice if it were true, but the world does not work like this and we do our children a disservice if we indoctrinate them in this way. The truth is that the reward for doing the right thing is the knowledge that you have done the right thing. Sometimes you are rewarded for it, sometimes you are not and sometimes you are even penalized. For Christian parents this is much easier to explain because our faith calls us to do right as an extension of who we are in Christ. The doing of good is a function of our new life in Jesus, not some ethical bargaining tool to gain favor.
The goal of parenting at 0-3 years, the parent is in charge (saying "no" 500 times a day).
The goals of parenting at 3-11 years. As parents we want our child to learn how to lead himself by:
- Realizing that he is responsible for his own life and you are giving him this responsibility little by little as he matures. The rate of independence he has is based on the level of maturity he demonstrates.
- Taking ownership of his choices and learning the lessons that his decisions teach him.
- Understanding the motivation for making good choices (faith, not just reward) and accepting that the world is not always fair, but God will do justice in the end.
The early childhood and middle years are when parents teach the child how a compass works, the teen years are when the parents help the child use that compass.
Rosemond, J. (1998) Teen-proofing. Kansas City, MS: Andrews McMeel Publishing.