Premature Thoughts on Parenting Teenagers

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I need to start out by making something absolutely clear. I have three children, but the oldest is 12. He turns 13 on March 26. So, we’re not there yet; we haven’t experienced parenting a teenager. And, like many things in my life (whether I like scary movies, whether I will ever dye my hair, and whether I ride the huge roller coasters, for example), I reserve the right to change my mind. About any of the stuff I say about parenting teenagers. Because, really, it’s a pretty dangerous thing to develop opinions about something before you’ve experienced it. And even more dangerous to share those opinions.

But here I go. I’m going to risk it. If you are already parenting teenagers, I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree. For me, parenting is a journey and I glean as much advice as I can along the way.

I recently became aware of a friend of a friend who knows a 13 going on 14 year old who is dealing with substance abuse issues. We all know this happens. When I was a kid, it was the stuff of After-School Specials. Perhaps you know a family that has struggled with a young teenager abusing drugs or alcohol. Perhaps it’s your own family. Perhaps it’s you who has struggled with addiction or drug and alcohol abuse. It’s always a painful path — for the individual and for everyone around him or her.

I don’t know the family of this young man well at all. Because the particular situation is so distant from me (geographically and relationally), I have the luxury of pondering why. That’s really hard to do when you’re in the middle of it yourself. But from this distance, I can do that. And perhaps it’s precisely because my oldest is 12 that I’m thinking not only about why, but also about why not. That is, are there circumstances that come together to prevent a teenager from dealing with these issues?

Because if there are, and if there is anything I can do to create those circumstances, I want to create them. Now. For my children. And for other children whose lives are connected with mine.

If I’m honest with myself, I desperately want to believe that the answer to this question is a resounding YES! I want to believe that my involvement in my children’s lives can have a deep, long-lasting and positive impact on them. I want to believe that these sorts of outcomes and struggles are not out of my control. That is, I want to believe that I can prevent them from happening.

Well, there we’ve hit upon it. While there may be few parents who would disagree with this desire for our children, what becomes clear is that I desperately want to control this sort of situation. No, let me be honest. I want to control my children. I want to orchestrate their lives in such a way as to avoid these pitfalls.

And, you know, that’s not entirely possible. Perhaps that’s parenting lesson #1, the one you learn somewhere roundabout when your crawler becomes a toddler. The lesson that hits home on the first day of summer when you put those adorable Lands’ End shortalls on your 15 month old. If your life is anything like mine, on that sweet, summer day, the first thing that happens when your first-born walks out the door is he falls and skins his knees. And you wish you had been there, right there, right next to him, able to scoop him up just before his chunky, little knees hit the blacktop. You wish you could roll back the clock as you hold him and wipe away his tears while trying to put Neosporin and a Band-aid on each knee, all the while deceptively telling him that the Band-aids will make it all better.

We can’t completely control our children’s lives. We can’t remove the tough stuff. We can’t. And even if we could, we shouldn’t.

But, as I reflect upon this family’s struggle and the struggles that so many teenagers and families go through, I want to think about the parts that I can control, that I should control. I want to think about what I can offer to my children that will equip them to best meet life’s challenges.

As I mentioned, parenting is a journey for me. I’m always learning. I’m always tweaking how I approach things. And this is no different. I’d like to tell you a few things that are on my mind today — things I can offer my children. Tomorrow, the list might be different. It might be longer. Maybe I’ll come up with more I should be doing. But for now, these are my thoughts:

1. I can be in conversation with my children about stuff that matters. Now, there’s a pretty general statement. In the fullness of life, it is easy to spend time talking about everything under the sun, without ever talking about the real stuff. Life isn’t just about homework and dinner and making arrangements to play at a friend’s house. Life is also about relationships and faith and character and feelings. Over the years, there can be lots of conversations about these things. But in the end, it seems to me, that it’s really one, long conversation. Start the conversation early. Start it when he’s 18 months old and barely verbal. Start it when she’s 3 years old and going to pre-school. Start the conversation and keeping having it, over and over and over again. So that when you get to the really tough stuff, the stuff that you start thinking might actually make or break your kid’s future, the conversation is already there. You’re already in the midst of talking to one another.

2. I can help my children connect with peers and other adults who will positively impact their lives. Think what will of Hillary Clinton, but I loved her book, It Takes a Village. And it does, doesn’t it? Raising terrific kids never happens in a vacuum. It’s about teachers and coaches and neighbors and friends and youth pastors and aunts and uncles and grandparents. Surround your children with people who will pay attention in those moments when you aren’t able to. Surround them with people who care about them almost as much as you do.

3. I can offer my children a strong academic environment and an array of activities with which to fill their childhood. I know there’s too busy, but the fact is that children whose lives are full hardly have time to go find trouble. It’s just true. And when a child is focused on learning and succeeding, he is looking forward to a good future. And it’s not as easy to get side-tracked when you’re looking forward.

4. I can offer my children a faith that works, one that doesn’t answer every question, but answers a lot of life’s questions. When I introduce my children to my faith, I am offering them something outside of themselves, something they can hang on to when life gets tough.

5. I can offer my children the assurance that not only do I love them, but I like them too. Ok, I’ll be honest. I don’t like my children every single day, every single moment. I always love them. But sometimes I don’t like them much. And I especially have moments when I don’t like their behavior. But overall, I really, really like these three kids. And I think this is huge. I believe that if my son believes he is a worthwhile, likable person, he is more likely to find worthwhile activities to spend his time on. He is more likely to treat himself well and make good choices.

So, that’s it for now. I’m sure the list will grow. And I’m sure I’ll discover that even these aren’t a magic formula. For now, I’m enjoying this ride. One thing I say to my 12 year old these days is that I’ve never been the Mom of a 12 year old. And he’s never been 12 before this year. So, we’re figuring this out together. We will both make mistakes. And we will both often make good choices. And I will grow as a parent as he grows into a young man. What a privilege it is to be part of that journey for him. I am honored to be his mother … and I pray that God will give me the wisdom to rise to that task.

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