"Parenting Teens: Could Less Often Be More?" by Upper School Head Michael Denning
“Our best tool as they enter and move through their adolescent years is our ability to advise and explain, and also to be good role models.”
—Former Nobles Parent Dr. Frances Jensen, professor and bestselling author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults
I am in awe of elementary-school educators. Young children are so enthusiastic and fascinating, and there is nothing better than the wisdom and humor of a child’s first musings on the environments in which, as well the people with whom, they live. As we celebrate our youngest schoolchildren, we should also honor those who work closely with them. All day every day, elementary-school educators redirect and nurture young people who possess boundless energy and insatiable appetites for discovery, exploration, learning and boundary testing. Their work is intellectually and physically exhausting and extremely important.
As I offer this tribute to elementary-school educators, I find myself also reflecting upon the comments often made by Nobles parents to my colleagues and me: “I don’t know how you find the patience to work with adolescents…When my daughter (or son) was still in elementary school, I understood her and could influence her behaviors…Now she does not talk with me like she used to, and I don’t know what she is thinking…” For my colleagues and me, connecting with teenagers (who are not our own) is rarely ever elusory. And this got me thinking: perhaps most of us have age groups towards which we gravitate and for which we have intuition.
Adolescents do engage with adults and consider feedback differently than they did when they were young children, and the ways we teach and mentor them should be informed and shaped by this reality. So as we head off to summer break, a respite during which you will hopefully have more time for conversations with your teen, I offer these brief reflections on working and talking with adolescents.
Mentoring vs. Redirection:
Most kids seek independence. But while most young children tolerate constant redirection and supervision, most adolescents will resist these. However, they will often accept, and even appreciate—albeit sometimes out of sight and over time—clear guidelines and consequences and thoughtful suggestions. What is required of us, as parents/guardians of teenagers, is greater discipline and an acceptance that we have far less control over our kids’ behaviors, successes and failures than we used to. As our kids make choices and process feedback offered by teachers, coaches, mentors, directors, bosses and peers—some of which is appropriately critical—we need to shift from a mode of redirection and problem-solving to one of mentoring, in which we listen, offer perspective, encourage resilience and promote reflection. It is bad enough when a student makes a poor decision or experiences an outcome that is disappointing. But a disappointment becomes a missed opportunity when a student does not (or cannot) assess accurately and honestly how the outcome came to pass.
Pick Your Battles & Moments (and allow your child to do some of the same):
Most adolescents will increasingly insist on making some of their own decisions, and this development is normal and usually represents a good and healthy maturation process. For us parents, however, it can be disconcerting to allow our kids to make their own choices when we believe that they might not see or understand the negative consequences that could result. Of course, when it comes to negative behaviors or destructive, dangerous choices, redirection is appropriate and your reaction and presentation of consequences should be immediate and unequivocal. But in terms of our kids’ decisions about co-curricular activities, friends, some future courses, study habits or reflections on less-than-stellar academic performances, being a bit more sanguine and patient can yield great benefits. In the long run, lower-risk negative consequences can be great teachers, too.
For years, the experts on human development at the Stanley King Counseling Institute have preached the following wisdom to secondary-school educators: “If the mindset when working with young children is, ‘don’t stand there, do something,’ the mindset with adolescents should often be the opposite: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’” As you talk with your teens about this past year’s challenges and disappointments, and suggest plans for the future, try to think in terms of process and principles, not simply outcomes and right and wrong choices. As challenging as it is to watch a child struggle, question, and make decisions we would not, contemplate the growth that comes when kids figure things out for themselves before going into solution-producing mode. Consider the ways limiting your feedback might allow you to place emphasis on those values and behaviors you deem most important. Finally, try to recognize how your restraint may enable your teenagers to initiate discussions with you on issues most important to them. Who knows what you might learn about them. And when they want to talk, drop what you are doing and engage because you may never get that opportunity again.
More Showing, Less Telling:
The older kids get, the more attuned they become to the ethics and behaviors of their peers, parents and teachers. Put another way, kids watch adults like hawks and can smell hypocrisy from a mile away. Indeed, as older kids start to seek less of (and even resist) direct parental guidance, they pay much closer attention to how their parents and teachers behave and how the actions of the adults in their lives shed light on the values by which we live. So as you become frustrated by your teenager’s unwillingness to simply do exactly what you want or tell them to do, take solace in knowing that inasmuch as they don’t want to be told how to behave, adolescents are eager to be shown how to live. Whether we like it or not, we teach who we are, and what we do speaks more loudly about what we value than anything we say.
I hope you have a wonderful summer.