Friday, February 16, 2007

On Bucking Broncos and Fences

I like asking people "set-up" questions to see how they respond. On the occasion of his golden anniversary, I asked my grandfather the “secret” of a successful marriage. Without missing a beat he said: “Well, I’ve got that all figured out. You see, I made a pact with your grandmother when we first got married that she’d make all the little decisions, and I’d make all the big ones. That has kept the peace between us for 50 years, and I recommend that arrangement to you.” “Of course,” he whispered to me, smiling, “ I’m still waiting to make my first big decision.”

Similarly, on the occasion of her last child to graduate from our school, I jokingly asked a mother the “secret” of raising teenagers. She paused for a moment, then said, quite seriously: “Teenagers are like bucking broncos. If you ride them, their natural instinct is to buck you. Our job as parents, then, is to build fences that lead them in the direction they need to go, so that they think they’re going there of their own accord.”

I consider this mother’s remark the single wisest comment I’ve heard about teenagers in the 22 years I’ve worked with high school students as a teacher, principal or president.

Our tendency as parents is to micro-manage every aspect of our kids’ lives, and however well this works when our children are younger, it is a certain recipe for fruitless conflict as our children become teenagers. When my 15 year old brought home a mediocre report card recently, my knee-jerk response was to set up a rigid schedule at night for homework, with a defined starting and ending time, and with me as “inspector general” , scrutinizing the quality of the work that was done. We battled every night. After a few miserable weeks, the quality had not improved, nor did he seem any more an “owner” of his education than when we started. So I changed tactics, telling my son I expected at least an hour of homework each night before his 10:30 p.m. bedtime, that I would not check it for quality, but I would ask his teachers at the end of each week how he was doing. If I received a favorable report, we could continue with this arrangement and all would be well. If not, he was on complete restriction ( including no cell phone) until the end of the following week, when I’d ask the teachers again. This plan worked much better—he appreciated the “freedom” to schedule his homework around a couple of television shows he wanted to watch, his father wasn’t looking over his shoulder every night, and he had no intention of losing his cell phone (cell phones were once described by an exasperated parent as the “teenage umbilical cord”). I had learned to build fences.

What about the weekends?

I have three teenage children, and my 12 year old is showing signs. Rather than try and choose their friends, or know precisely what they are doing every minute they’re out at night, or “ping” my kids to death by calling them every 30 minutes on the cell phone, my wife and I have learned to keep things simple with three rules:

First, they can go out on Friday and Saturday nights until curfew time (midnight for our 12th grader, 11 for our freshman) but they can’t spend the night at someone else’s house, so we tell them not to bother asking. They ask anyway (being teenagers) but then grudgingly accept the rule as a given. My experience as principal is that almost all of the time, kids get into trouble on weekends when they are spending the night with other teens, and thus do not feel accountable to their parents.

Second, to increase that feeling of accountability, they must talk with me when they get home (yes, that means I must be awake to do so). This gives them the “excuse” they may need to say no to drinking, ala “You don’t know my crazy dad. He actually inspects me when I come home….”

Third, especially with my daughter, she must call us when she arrives and when she leaves a destination, so we know she got there safely or should be arriving home within a certain time. We live in a world where safety matters.

Of course, going out at all is contingent on meeting their classroom and family responsibilities that week. If they do so, they have relative “freedom” during the weekend.

I won’t lie: It sounds cleaner and easier in an essay than it does in real life! We often don't get it right. We get angry and jump on the bronco and ride it for a while, however much we foreswear this as right. Too, we may build fences, but they’re often flimsy things in need of mending (and teens are excellent at spotting where the fence is weakest!). Parenting is trial and error (and error, and error), but I believe we approach things right if we take that mother’s advice. May we all become good fence-builders!