5) Avoid immediately “rescuing” your teen—If our children have trouble with a coach, teacher or other adult in their life--unless it's a case of their health or safety-- insist they make attempts to resolve the issue before swooping in to save them. That doesn’t mean there’s not a proper time for us to meet with a teacher or coach, but only after our kids have stepped up to the plate and swung first. If we are first to intervene, we take away a growth opportunity for our child and potentially ruin a chance to favorably resolve the issue (because when we're involved, it easily becomes a power-struggle).
A common example of this dilemma is “playing time” for our kids on an athletic team. Help your child by talking through how to talk to his or her coach, or even “role-play” the coach with him or her as prep for the meeting (if your child allows it). I recommend the teen asks the coach for an appointment time, rather than meet randomly, and at that meeting, he or she should ask the coach “What can I do to get better to help the team more? (which is oriented to team) rather than “How come I’m not getting more playing time” (which is oriented to self). Most coaches are going to respond to that kind of meeting very favorably. Parents, this is one conversation you should stay out of--you'll need to suffer in silence! But if you must, never, ever approach a coach immediately after a ball game—he’s not likely at his best, nor are you!
As much as we want to, we can’t smooth all pathways out in front of our children, protecting them from bumps and rocks in their path. Working through these difficulties will help them grow up.
4) Teenagers should “sleep in their own beds each night.” This is probably my most controversial suggestion. Yes, I mean no sleepovers. Here’s why: I’ve had countless meetings with teenagers whose lives are unravelling due to incidences outside of school, usually on weekend nights. The common denominators? They were intoxicated, and they “spent the night” at a “ friend’s house.” Teenagers often play the “shell” game with their parents: Teen A says he’s spending the night with Teen B’s family, Teen B says he’s spending the night with Teen A’s family, but both are spending the night at Teen C's home, free from adult oversight —perhaps a place where the parents are on vacation, or a place in the woods, or even a hotel. Before you say “not my kid”—I am talking about good kids from good families who play these kind of games.
If we allow kids to spend the night somewhere else, we have a lot of issues to think through. Consider: ”Which families are the “good” families whom you’ll allow your kids to spend the night with? Which families are on the “banned” list? How will we explain that distinction to our kids? How will we navigate our social interactions with the “banned” family? Will the other parents insist their child (and yours) comes home that night? What time? Will a parent in that home be “up” when they return? In other words, will that family truly insist on that curfew time, or look the other way? How carefully will this family oversee activities within their home? In their yard? Will they allow kids to drink? On their property? Somewhere else? Who else might come over? What if the group of kids informs that family they’re going to stay at another person’s home—are you allowing that parent to make that decision on your behalf? The truth is that these kinds of questions sound intrusive, and so most of the time, we don’t ask them, meaning that our kids could be doing almost anything. We simply don't know.
My “fence” was simply “you gotta sleep in your own bed.” What did my kids think about it? They hated it, of course--they were teens!-- and I remember my daughter once weeping bitterly, telling us “this rule is from the stone ages,” and that we “were isolating her from her friends.” She survived, and by the way had numerous friends, despite her neanderthal father! That same daughter, in her late twenties now, recently told us “that rule kept her away from a lot of bad things” and thanked us for holding the line. Sometimes, we have to do things to protect our teenagers, even if they don’t like it!
3) Focus on effort in school, not grades—From the perspective of the student to whom school comes easily, but also from the perspective of a student who has difficulty, focusing on grades is the wrong metric to measure success. I’ve had many meetings with parents of a kid doing poorly who say “I’ve told him, I expect all A’s and B’s,” when in fact, an A or B might be unattainable for that student in a certain class, leading that child to frustration or despair. But I’ve also known many kids making “good grades" who could be doing much better if they worked harder.
One of my sons—whom God had blessed with talent—cruised his way through the first two years of high school, doing very little work but making good grades, despite my constant harping on him to work harder. But in his junior year, the Pre-Calculus teacher, sounding nervous, asked to meet with me (the principal) before first quarter grades were published. She was worried what I might think about her, because my son had a “D” in her class. I smiled at her, shook her hand, and said “Thank you, you’re doing my son a great favor.” My son was shell-shocked, but he started to become a more serious student, frequently leaving the house at 6:30 a.m. to get 30 minutes of Math tutoring before school. My wife and I would high five each other as he left, pleased that our son was showing signs of growing up!
Grades are less important than people think. Because they’re so inflated nationally, and because they vary so much between schools, colleges don’t trust them. Instead, they focus on ACT or SAT scores, which helps them compare “apples to apples.” The best way to improve ACT scores? Not an ACT prep class! Rather, I tell parents a student should take the "most demanding set of classes a child is capable of making a B in," and then he should work really hard in those classes. Over time—there’s no quick fix here—the ACT scores will slowly creep up.
If you have a child that does poorly in school, disregard the grades. Yes! Disregard them. Instead, tell him you expect 60-90 minutes of homework each night and that if asked, his teachers will say he’s ‘working hard’ and “paying attention.” If those things are true, I recommend you take your child to dinner to celebrate for his “A+” effort and to tell him you’re proud of him! He’s doing the best he can, which is all we can ask. Let the grades take care of themselves….
2) Keep Holy the Sabbath—No doubt about it, the decision whether they will practice their faith will be theirs one day, usually beginning in college. But if they live in our home, they must live by our rules, and one of those rules is we attend Church. When they’re younger, they had to go to Church with us, as a family. In their later teen years, we had no issue with them attending a different mass, perhaps a youth mass in our parish or some other parish. Hey, whichever liturgy or parish speaks most powerfully to them, I’m fine with that! But it’s a non-negotiable that they must go, every week and on holy days of obligation. Why do I believe we should insist on this? If we allow our children to make that decision while they live with us, we are in effect, “sanctioning” that choice in their mind. But if they choose not to go to Church when they attend college, they do so understanding that we don’t agree with that decision—but that they have the freedom to make that choice.
Furthermore, unless the activity were Church related, like being in a music group that played for Church on Sundays, or becoming active in youth-parish activities, Sundays were NOT a day we allowed our kids to engage in athletic practices, games or any other scheduled “activities” that pulled our kids away from the family and added to the chaos of their lives. There has to be one day a week when things slow down, for the sake of our family and our kids’ mental health. We’re all too busy. Sunday is the one day each week to take a deep breath, to watch some ball games, catch up on homework, or to take a nap. As principal, I will not allow practices to be held on Sundays for this reason.
1) Mean what we say. How many times do we tell our teens to do something before we institute some sort of discipline for their non-compliance? Some parents might say "just once," and I wouldn't argue against that too strongly, because it insists that we mean what we say, which is the point I'm making. But my sense, having raised 3 boys who sometimes gave a good impression of a deaf-mute, is "twice." And if I have to ask a child a second time, there's a certain "tone" in my voice--not yelling!--that is unmistakably a warning.
Good parenting is similar to good classroom management. I tell teachers that if they "shush" kids 10 times in class before there's a consequence, then the first nine "shushes" didn't matter. Excellent teachers generally give talkative kids a certain "look" as a kind of warning, then a verbal reprimand, then some sort of disciplinary consequence if it continues. EVERY TIME. As a result, the line is pretty firm in the students' minds.
Parents who don't insist on this kind of "patterned consequence" will often find themselves shouting at their children, both out of exasperation, but also to emphasize that they really mean it (this time). Shouting at our children is almost never good--far better to "speak softly and carry a big stick" if kids are not responding to what we've asked them to do.
Parents are benevolent oligarchs. If the oligarchs are wise, they'll be balanced in what they ask of kids, building fences and not micro-managing. But once the oligarch decides, it's OK to tolerate a little complaining, but ultimately, the child must do as we ask. With my lawyerly teenage daughter (who no surprise to us, actually became a lawyer), I would engage with her for a few moments, then ultimately end with "I'm sorry you disagree with me, but I expect you to do it," then walk away, thereby not allowing the argument to continue or become more heated. She'd fume a bit, but ultimately do what we asked (most of the time).
Or what? What's the "penalty?" Well, consequences depend on the issue, but I've found confiscating the cell phone for a length of time usually works for what I might label as "routine" disciplinary issues. Cell phones are like crack cocaine for teenagers--they'll do anything to get them back--and the break from technology isn't a bad thing for them. I don't believe in removing kids from athletic teams, because those activities are healthy for kids, and in the case of an undisciplined child, the structure and accountability that athletics provide are part of the solution, not the problem. Doing service on the weekends, waking up early on Saturday mornings to do extra yard work, babysitting a younger sibling on a Friday night--all of these things are within our "arsenal" as parents. Be creative!
Conclusion: When our kids were toddlers, older parents would tell us, in foreboding terms, to "enjoy the kids now, because one day they'll become teenagers." Nonsense! Teenagers are quirky, funny, honest, maddening, mercurial, and loads of fun to be around. It's worth remembering that we can't be perfect parents, and they can't be perfect kids. But it is awe-inspiring to be able to witness our children becoming young men and women, with their unique personalities, their unique opinions and world-view. Pray for them daily, that God helps them become the persons he has designed them to be--therein lies their happiness. Pray for your patience and wisdom, that you will lead them well. And enjoy the ride!