Tough to Love?
July 13, 2004
by John Hoffman, Today's Parent
"You don't have to like all of your teen's behaviour. You just have to like her."
I witnessed a touching scene between a teenaged girl and her mother. They happened to be sitting near me at a concert. The girl, one of my son's school friends, looked like a typical adolescent, cool and independent, sitting with her friends, near the parents, but behind that invisible social wall that teens often put up in public to show that they're not really with their parents. A little later, during intermission, I looked over and she was sitting quietly on her mother's lap while her mother chatted with a friend.
It made me think how seldom we see such moments of intimate, simple connection between teenagers and parents. The scene reminded me that for all their sophistication and attitude, teens still need to be unconditionally loved, just as they did when they were little.
This need can be easy to forget as we struggle to steer our adolescents through big-kid issues. Sometimes I think parents of teenagers should go around whispering in each other's ears, 'Psst! Don't forget to love your kid."
As parents we're always searching for the right balance between unconditional love and conditional approval. When children are little, it's mostly unconditional. Yes, we need to correct, teach and explain, but the obvious needs and dependence of young children, combined with their resilience and abundant charm, make it easy for us to forgive them. Forgiveness draws us back to the unconditional.
Teenagers are harder to forgive. They often act like they don't need us or want us, and they tend not to bounce up asking us to play catch, untangle their shoelace or put a Band-Aid on a scraped knee.
I often wonder if this is why some parents of teenagers get stuck on the conditional. Parents can become so intent on correcting their adolescent's shortcomings that they lose sight of her need for unconditional love and support.
What your kid does is not what your kid is
When a 13-year-old stays out hours later than he agreed, then lies about who he was with, it can feel as if the moral balance of the world has gone out of whack, and our indignation or disapproval somehow sets it right. We don't really think that, of course. We just act like it sometimes. And when we're seeing a lot of misbehaviour, surly responses to our reasonable and repeated requests, or chronic indifference to household chores and other things important to us it's easy to forget the difference between approving of the behaviour and approving of the person. If I let down my guard and share a few laughs with him at dinner about our favourite Seinfeld episodes, will he think that means I approve of everything he does?
No. You don't have to like all of your teen's behaviour. You just have to like him. Call him on his actions, set standards, enforce expectations. But what your kid does is not what your kid is. We know this; at least we should. It's one of the core messages in parent education. When we lose sight of it, kids suffer.
I've seen teenagers who are hurting for love. Yes, some are not in a very good place right now: out of school, no motivation, no plans, too much partying. Yes, we could expect better and yes, there are other teens who put them to shame.
But when I look at one of these kids, I often see the child who could just as easily be sitting on someone's lap. Yes, this one drinks behind his parents' back, that one dresses like a punk groupie, and the other one skips school two days out of five. And sure, it's easy for me to see their good points because I'm not the one trying to get them to stop smoking dope and come home before 4 a.m.
It's easy to love kids when they're being compliant, charming or adorable. But when they're not, they still need us. Our relationships with our children have to outlast any stage they go through and any rut they get stuck in. We can't forget that. Whatever else happens, kids, and in particular, teens need us in their corner.