Thursday, 15 October 2009


há-de servir mais tarde.

Laisser-Faire Parenting
(or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust the Teenager)

by Jo Ann Bernstein

     There is absolutely nothing wrong with your teenager but, clearly, there's something very wrong with your teenager! S/he is rude, sullen, selfish, lazy, thoughtless, defiant, provocative, rebellious, out of control, perhaps quite depressed, maybe even fooling around with all manner of risky things behind your back, including, but not limited to, sex, drugs, alcohol, weapons procurement, collapsing of small governments, and possibly minor breaches of national security. S/he thinks you, the parent, are the stupidest, most embarrassing, most out-of-it, cruelest creature on earth. Adults probably think this is the most uncivilized generation of youth the planet has ever seen. Yet adults in all of recorded human history have made the very same complaints about teenagers. Even Socrates (470-399 B. C.) groused that young people "today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers." What should this history tell us? Simply, that if every generation of adults finds the same fault in teenagers, it follows that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the teenagers--that their behavior is normal. The problem, generation after generation, is adults' failure to understand and respect their teenagers' stage of human development.

     Teenagers, by nature, are driven to separate themselves from their parents and become individual, autonomous beings. They are no longer children yet not accepted as adults, their hormones are exploding, they're trying desperately to figure out who they are, what they believe, what their capabilities are, how to trust themselves, and other little matters like their purpose and the meaning of life, and they're scared to death. Their need to break from the previous generation is overwhelming, as it should be if they are to find themselves. They are driven to push the edge of the envelope in all directions, even if they terrify themselves doing it. They must question everything their parents, schools, religious institutions, and culture have told them is truth in order to discover a meaningful truth for themselves. If they don't make their discoveries within the short window of time that comprises the teenage years, they likely never will. They will, instead, relive the lives of their parents and all previous generations, playing it safe, never looking outside the box, never really finding their own meaning and joy in life. And that would be a pity.

     At the same time our teenagers are living in a constant state of turmoil searching for independence, parents (as well as society) tend to react negatively, hold on tighter, make more rules, and be just as frightened as their kids are. Parents have raised, protected, loved, and worried about their kids for many years, have made rules, demanded certain
compliances, and held their breath hoping the kids would turn out all right. That's how their parents did it, and they know no other way. So, each generation is the same. The harder the parents try to hold on, the harder young Mary and Johnny rebel. If parents hold on too tightly, Mary and Johnny get broken. Some kids figure out who they are and take charge of their lives despite their surroundings, but most never do. And parents are left scratching their heads wondering what happened. We need only look around a bit to see how unhappy most people are when they reach adulthood, how fearful, how hurt, how angry, how unfulfilled. Bad marriages, unsatisfying jobs, drug and alcohol addictions, emotional difficulties, lack of caring for fellow human beings, inability to truly care for Self. The teenage years are the final nail in life's coffin, or, in rare cases, the wind beneath the wings.

     We are living in the new energy, knowing we cannot handle yet another generation of teenagers with the old ways. What can we do differently during these challenging years to encourage Mary and Johnny to create wonderful lives for themselves and to minimize all-out warfare? Stop worrying, stop trying to control, step back and LET THEM GO! In short, stop trying to be a parent. Parenting a teen is essentially not parenting anymore. It's a hard habit to break, which means, of course, that parent must practice not being a parent every day until a new habit of loving, benign neglect is forged. It may help to think of Mary and Johnny as much admired houseguests whom you would never tell what to do, think, or be. You would simply live your quiet, peaceful life and go about your usual routines, expecting that Mary and Johnny will go about their own lives and routines. Houseguests sometimes show up for dinner, and sometimes not. They sometimes want to talk, and sometimes not. They don't direct your life, and you don't direct theirs. They don't judge your thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and actions, and you don't judge theirs. They are separate individuals whom you enjoy bumping into once in a while around the house. You treat them with kindness, affection and respect, and they probably treat you the same way. If they have a difficult day, you are sympathetic but uninvolved. If they are rude, you don't respond, just as you would expect them not to respond if you are rude. You don't have any "buttons" they can push and you don't try to find theirs. You take responsibility for you and they take responsibility for themselves. You make your own decisions and deal with your own consequences, and they do the same. By your gracious conduct, you set the example for them of how to be kind, autonomous human beings who are respectful of Self and others.

     Here are a few of the ways in which we can stop being parents and start to become truly helpful to our teens. Start by acknowledging to yourself that the way Mary and Johnny were at ages 4 or 10 or 12 is not who these kids are now as teenagers. They can no longer be treated like children who need guidance and protection. They must be treated as separate, capable grown-up beings; they are already far more capable than parents or they yet know. They must be allowed to go through their own life tests in order to develop life-long wise discernment. Never do for them what they can do for themselves, lest they fail to develop the ability to solve their own problems. They must experience the consequences of their decisions so that they can discover the connection between cause and effect and learn to trust their ability to make wise decisions. So, resist the temptation to take responsibility away from your kids and make it easier for them. Don't tell them what they must do to solve their problems. Just let them know that you know they will make the best decision they can.

     By all means, let your teens come to you to talk if they wish to. They may not wish to, at first, because of the conditioning they have received since early childhood. Most parents tell children they can tell them anything (and we really mean it when we say it). But when the kids do, the parents find fault, judge, lecture, yell, punish or, at the very least, tell the kids what to do with a particular problem. The kids feel hurt and learn to fear talking to their parents. They become disappointed in them and learn not to trust them. Teens really do want to talk to their parents, but parents will have to earn back their trust by listening without judgment, displeasure, impatience, lecture, and marching orders. Don't ask Mary & Johnny to talk to you. Don't ask them what's wrong. Butt out of their lives and they will begin to come to you. When they do, acknowledge that they're having a hard time, let them know that you've had times when you couldn't seem to find a solution to a problem, discuss possible choices of solutions if they desire, and then leave the decision making up to them. Trust that they will weigh the consequences and fasten on a decision that will do the most good and the least harm to Self and others.

     Never make your teens do anything they don't want to do, whether it's coming to the dinner table, visiting relatives, attending church, or any other activity they don't wish to do. Why should any human being be forced to engage in anything his/her heart isn't in or that causes unhappiness? Just as an adult would never accept being forced to do anything s/he doesn't want to do, neither should a teenager be forced into an uncomfortable, unfulfilling activity because parent wants it or because that's the way it has always been done. Unless the law compels it (as in staying in school until age 16), Mary and Johnny should not be made to do what is unpleasant to them. If they're hungry, they will come to the table (and help you prepare the meal). If they want to see a favorite relative, they will. If they find meaning in church, they will attend. If not, not. The more a parent attempts to impose his/her will on a teenager, the more desperately unhappy the home will be, for the teen will resent the parent, feel compelled
to rebel, or, if the parent's will is strong enough, be broken. Do your best to recall how bad it felt to have your parents on your back when you were a teen, and allow yours the autonomy to decide where they will put their own energy and passion. Mary and Johnny's desire to separate from you and pursue their own interests (indeed, all of their rebellious teenage conduct) is not a personal affront to you; it is their way of finding their own sense of Self. So, when you most want to pull tight on the leash, leave the kid alone.

     If you really want to know your teens, ask what their hopes, dreams, wishes, interests, passions and loves are. Let them talk freely with you with no fear of judgment. If they don't want to talk, that's fine, too. When they really want to share their thoughts, they will come to you.

     Do away with rules. Teens find rules just plain stupid. They know, for example, that they can get into just as much trouble at 2:00 in the afternoon as they can at 2:00 in the morning. So a curfew makes no sense to them. You either trust them or not. If you trust that you have raised them well and that they will make good decisions for themselves, they will not engage in behavior that's too risky and they will come home to sleep at some point. If they get into trouble out there, they will learn from their own consequences. Kids know that the more "rules" a parent makes, the more frightened that parent is. Kids know, too, that the parent who makes rules has no confidence or trust in his/her kid. Ripe pickings for rebellion, no? You wouldn't impose rules on your much admired houseguest. You'd trust him/her. It's that simple.

     Last thoughts: do not violate your teens' privacy or confidences. Their rooms are their territory (you must never go in uninvited), and the thoughts they share with you are not to be passed on to another living soul unless they ask you to. Trust is everything.

     The greatest gift parents will ever give their teens is to leave them alone. Let them find their own way through their own experiences, mistakes, consequences, and solutions to problems. They will come into adulthood with good judgment and grace.

by Jo Ann Bernstein
© Copyright 2001.

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