On Parenting Teenagers (Part 3 of 4)

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Pick Your Battles

Parents of small children invest significant time and effort inculcating disciplines in their children. When children that were previously reasonable and obedient unexpectedly change their behavior, it may seem like a thoroughly unreasonable, even crazy, reversal or rebellion against these disciplines. This tempts some parents to turn every little assertion of independence into a dramatic power struggle. They pick small fights because they should be easy, and pick big fights because the stakes are high.

Conclusion #3: Pick your battles. Picking your battles means saving your energy to address and correct only the most consequential behaviors. Let your child enjoy independence in ways that don't result in lasting harm to them or others. Do it even if independence seems disobedient, rebellious, or just plain crazy. For example, we have allowed our daughters to wear summer clothes during cold winters. We have allowed them to skip meals. Meanwhile, other parents have complained of bitter fights with their teenagers over exactly these behaviors. However, our allowances seem to have made our daughters more likely to obey when we demand behaviors that actually affect their physical safety or long-term health.

Parents should think of these behavior changes as experiments, testing the validity and limits of previously-established disciplines and behaviors. It is also helpful to think of these experiments as a biological imperative, holding risks for the child but also critical to development. Remember when your baby would put everything in his or her mouth? Our parents or grandparents might have strictly prohibited such behavior, but modern science says strict prohibition is actually counterproductive to a baby's health and development. The same nuance must be applied in the teenage years.

The fact is, no parent can keep up with every exploration of behavioral change that accompanies the transition from child to adult. Household life quickly becomes unbearable if each one precipitates an argument that escalates into a shouting match. If you keep these escalations in reserve for only the most consequential behaviors, you will find your home a much more peaceful and harmonious place. Perhaps most importantly, if every exploration is the opening of a fight, that doesn't mean the child will refrain from exploring—he or she will simply find ways to conduct experiments in hiding or secret. Allow—or even encourage—innocuous explorations. Then all explorations are likely happen "above ground." This will provide you opportunities for parental intervention. Occasionally, your intervention will even be welcomed or invited!

A General Rule of Parenting

Picking your battles is a corollary to a general rule of parenting. I don't think this has been written anywhere, but it is something that experience and reflection have led me to. The rule is this: Your role as a parent is not to protect your child from failure, but to ensure failure is not catastrophic. Parents want children to benefit from their experiences. Every one of us has told our child, "I don't want you to make the same mistake I made." However, the fact is that experience is the very best of teachers. Remember when your child kept asking "why?", "why?" until you could no longer answer? They may have stopped asking it, but the question may not have gone away. A child may actually want to make the same mistake you made, so as to learn a lesson more fully than you could ever teach it. Furthermore, the same choice or behavior that led to misfortune for you, a generation ago, is not guaranteed to lead your child to misfortune today. Then why hold your child back and impose unnecessary fears and inhibitions?

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

If you are not entirely ready to give up on the less-consequential behaviors, here is one strategy to try. It might work in getting your teenager to complete agreed-upon chores or to put their belongings away. Instead of demanding such behaviors, ask for them politely and repeatedly at reasonable intervals. The key is to avoid any escalation by not reacting in any way whatsoever. You have to be like the pleasant-sounding alarm that keeps going off even when your teenager hits "snooze."

Here is an example. Suppose the parent and child have previously agreed that the child will put his or her dirty dish in the sink after dinner...

At 6:20 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child: OK

At 6:40 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child: I will!

At 7:00 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child: No, I'm in the middle of my homework! Geez!

At 7:20 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child (watching television): OK, as soon as this episode is done.

At 7:40 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child (watching television): Sorry, I forgot. As soon as this episode is done.

At 8:00 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child: No, I'm working on this project with my friend! What is wrong with you?

At 8:20 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child: Right after I brush my teeth.

At 8:40 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent: Please put your dish in the sink.

Child: WTF! I'll do it in the morning!

At 9:00 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent (waking the child up): Please put your dish in the sink.

Child: Oh my god! I can't believe you woke me up for this! If it's that important, then do it yourself!

At 9:20 PM, the child's dirty dish is on the table.

Parent (waking the child up again): Please put your dish in the sink.

Child (putting the dish in the sink): Fine!

The three-hour duration of this example may seem unbearably arduous. However, note that the parent expends a negligible amount of time and energy in robotically reminding the child of the agreed-upon chore. Indeed, the ordeal has been more trying for the child than for the parent! The child is likely to nip things in the bud if the situation recurs, and possibly even avoid it altogether by completing the chore without being reminded. There is no escalation, nor is there any legitimate reason for escalation. In the end, the dish is in the sink, the child has gone through the motions of putting it there, and the child is reminded that the parent is willing to persistently remind him or her (without nagging or whining) of the agreed-upon chore.

Don't Give Up

The more important lesson from the above example is never to let your teenager think you have given up on him or her. Although teenagers' behavior can be thoroughly exasperating, they need to know what your expectations are at all times—even when they choose to experiment with not meeting those expectations. The best way to communicate them is with patience, persistence, and serenity.

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Updated at: 2016-02-23 04:26:01 UTC