A parent's job is difficult--and difficult to define--especially during the teen years. Thanks to all the chaos (and the scheduling and carpooling and the fact that we're straight-up exhausted) parents can lose sight of our goals.
So let’s think about this: what do we really want for our children? Not the details so menacing during adolescence—specific coursework or hobbies, curfews or clubs, colleges or career choices—the Big Stuff. Assuming the world will look a little different when they are adults--and assuming we intend to send them off into that world--what do we really want for them? What to we want them to be? To have? To do? Can we help our daughters and sons stay true to their fundamental integrity when they face life's slings and arrows, outrageous fortune and what-have-you? Assuming we don’t intend to cloister our progeny, how do we do that? How can we keep them whole while we expose them to the broken world?
We can remember what we wanted for our kids in the first place. Many unexpected things will be demanded of them once they become adults. We can’t prepare them for the specifics. Yes, they should be able to launder clothes and make a few meals, change a tire and pay taxes. Maybe I want my kids to know how to write a thank-you note, tell a joke or play piano. We may feel like failures if they can’t survive on their own in the wilderness, do a back-flip, make clever small-talk at parties or list the entire Beatles catalog from memory. We want a lot of things for our kids but all this is small stuff. Adolescents will soon be making decisions about where they spend their money, whom they support in elections, and how they conduct themselves in the wide, weird world. We’ve got to look at the big picture, the essential skills they need to navigate the world. Teachers begin with the end in mind: what should students be able to do at the end of their time in our care? Not-important things can cloud our focus. We tend to lose sight of the real tasks of the family system during adolescence. But let’s take a shot at articulating what we really, really want for our children when they are all grown-up (tweet this).
Here are five Big-Picture lessons I hope to teach my kids. What really matters to you?
When they leave the nest, I hope my children are able to:
1. See the Good in the World
Life is hard but worth it. I say this so much to teenagers it has almost lost its impact. I repeat it all the time—to them and to myself—because it’s so true and so important. It’s easy to succumb to the struggle, especially for teenagers; immediacy is their jam. It’s easy to get mired in the ugliness of existence. I hope my children will grow up to be people who rise above it. Who see the pain but focus on the joy. No matter how we wish we could sequester them from reality, our kids will see some pretty rough stuff. Call it what you will—a glass-half-full personality, a sunny disposition, a Pollyanna persona—I want my kids to have a positive view of the world. I want them to see the world with open eyes—all of it, flaws and foibles—and I want them to see the silver lining in every cloud.
2. Manifest Change for Themselves and Others
People who can see good in the world also tend to trust their ability to affect change when it is needed. How often adults—all of us—curse the darkness instead of lighting a candle! I want my children to have what sociologists call an interior locus of control: the perception of responsibility for their own life and actions. People who believe outside forces are responsible for all their misfortunes and successes tend to feel victimized by circumstance. Those who believe destiny is at least partly a result of their own doing, on the other hand, can manifest change. They can get themselves out of ruts, awful situations and complex challenges. First they have a view of the world positive enough to envision change. Then they call upon their interior strength to make the change. They think outside the box. They seek solutions instead of whining about problems. They survive and thrive. They’re nice people to be around. I hope my children become adults who don’t feel like victims. I hope they find ways to help themselves—and others—feast on life’s banquet.
3. Maintain a Healthy Body
One undeniable task of adolescence is to physically mature. To grow up. Part of our job is keeping kids safe and healthy enough to reach the pinnacle of adulthood. With this outcome in mind parents can see clearly the importance of rest, exercise, good nutrition and keeping kids away from drugs and alcohol. At the end of the road—when they are fully grown themselves—I hope my kids will know how to make choices to stay healthy.
The adolescent brain is malleable, plastic, an open window, predisposed to seek and sense pleasure. Teenagers are super-responsive to outside stimuli and their brains form according to their experience of the world. Regular pleasure from drugs and alcohol—and conversely, regular pleasure from exercise and engaging hobbies—wires the brain for future experience. It is the parent’s job to provide a healthy environment for this development, while scaffolding the process so they know how to create and maintain healthy adult environments for themselves.
4. Establish a Unique Identity
I am not you; you are not me. These are words we should repeat to ourselves often during the painful process of adolescent identity formation. Since the dawn of time wisdom tells us it is each child’s task to establish autonomy from the family of origin. As I’ve gone on and on about already, the act itself is violent and painful. But it’s one of the most important parts of growing up into responsible adulthood: our kids have to figure out who they are apart from us.
We nudge kids in the direction of independence by gradually helping them become more responsible for their own decision-making. They need to feel secure in our support and guidance exactly as they reject and condemn our very presence in their lives. There is no doubt: teenagers undergo a crisis of identity. It’s a good thing, remember. It eventually allows them to make commitments, choose careers and remain true to themselves when the storms of existence blow like a hurricane. When all is said and done (and they’re no longer living in our home) I hope my children will know who they are. I hope they will have an unshakable sense of self, anchored in our family and open to experience. With a positive world-view, a strong interior locus of control, a healthy brain and a solid sense of identity, kids grow up to do just as I labored to teach my students: they think for themselves. They read and watch with healthy skepticism. They have an internal shelter from the storms of life.
I want my kids to be able to commit to and complete a task. I want them to believe hard work pays off. I want them to be capable of focusing on the future instead of only on the present. Life’s banquet dishes up plenty of opportunities to delay gratification, to do things we’d rather not do in order to reap later benefits. Self-regulation is the ability to envision those future rewards, wait for them and work for them. The brain circuits that regulate self-control are strengthened during adolescence. We need to help our kids with these skills now (because they are hormonal messes) and gradually let them practice on their own. By scaffolding their journey toward independence we can help self-regulation be more automatic—and much easier—for them when they are adults. It’s a lifelong struggle to delay gratification and make responsible choices, but the way we learn to do it in adolescence can make a big difference in how easily it comes.
As I will remind you often (and it's not a unique idea), tenacity almost always trumps raw talent (tweet this). If my children can rely on the executive functions of their brains (decision-making, problem-solving, planning ahead) as well as their God-given natural gifts, there will be no end to the richness of their lives
For my discussion of how rough (but normal) the teen years can be, please read Cutting the Apron Strings.
For more on how to create that inner shelter for kids (from the storms of life), please check out Gimme Shelter: Why I Taught Grammar to Kids Who Didn't Care.
You also may be interested in this piece on maintaining perspective while parenting teens: Shelter-Belt: Six Lessons on Parenting from America's Heartland.