Learn how the parental moves you make now set the tone for your child's teenage years to come.
Your daughter is special. After a carefree childhood, she’ll enter adolescence with a strong focus on her studies, a healthy indifference to the world of sex, drugs and pop culture, and...no, that’s not quite right. She’ll start pulling away from you long before you’re ready for it, and by 14 she’ll be sitting in her basement room, contemplating her pierced navel through a haze of smoke and subversive lyrics.
Somewhere between these two parental delusions lies the uncharted terrain of your child’s adolescence. If she’s still young, that terrain may seem part of another continent. But, as the cliché goes, the years will unroll faster than you thought possible, and one day that teenager will be framing your front door, looking serene, sullen or maybe smug, asking for 50 bucks and the keys to your car. When is the right time to start preparing for that moment? Do the moves you make today set the tone for your child’s teenage years?
Media pundits portray adolescence as an oncoming black truck that can’t be avoided. Your son will pierce his left eyebrow and listen to misogynistic rap lyrics. But it helps to remember that scores of teens emerge from adolescence with intact eyebrows, decent report cards and maybe even a volunteering gig or two under their belts. I once read that only one in five teens fits the stereotypical mould — truculent, unco-operative, rejecting of adult values, prone to impulsive behaviour — while the remainder, if not exactly sailing through adolescence, fall short of capsizing in the ocean of rebellion.
Parenting guru and best-selling author Barbara Coloroso agrees. In her experience, “the angry and rebellious profile describes only a minority of teens.” Which is not to say that “good” kids eschew all forms of rebellion. “I let all my kids rebel in small ways,” she says, recounting the now-classic tale of her son Joseph’s request to shave one side of his head and put stripes on the other. Reminding herself of her own parenting motto — if it’s not immoral, dangerous or fattening, let ’em do it — Coloroso gave her son the green light. “Better to let them rebel early when it’s cheap,” she says.
Of far greater import than the hair on a child’s head, says Coloroso, is your child’s ability to “serve as a witness in the face of bullying or irresponsible behaviour. You want your teen to be the one to call the paramedic when someone has passed out from drinking at a party.”
For all her faith that good children make good teenagers, Coloroso recognizes that adolescence can intensify emotions and bring out risky behaviours in a significant minority of teens. The risks are too real for parents to ignore. A study of 90,000 US teenagers, called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, revealed that 26 percent of respondents had engaged in extreme behaviours ranging from assaults to attempted suicide. Most predictive of these behaviours were failure in school, poor family relationships and a surfeit of unstructured time.
What her two daughters do in their free time is something Geneen Blanchett of southwestern Saskatchewan takes very seriously. TV doesn’t make the cut on school nights. “Some of my kids’ friends watch Survivor, but that’s not an option in our house,” she says. Debbie Gordon, a former advertising executive who now does media literacy workshops for kids, agrees with Blanchett’s attention to both the quality and quantity of TV her children watch. “TV is not bad in itself,” says Gordon. “But certain shows, like Survivor, paint a picture of a dog-eat-dog world that may not set the best example for kids.” What’s more, “teachers tell me over and over again about their students’ short attention spans,” a finding Gordon attributes partly to the fast pace of TV and electronic games.
In choosing books, music, crafts and family discussions as evening activities, Blanchett says she strives to keep Jenna, nine, and Katie, five, both “naive and informed [naive in not being immersed in pop culture, but informed about the challenges that lie ahead]. Jenna and I have talked about smoking, drugs, sex, even teenage depression. I think that talking about these issues ahead of time equips kids to handle them responsibly when the time comes.”
Blanchett’s instincts are supported by the large body of research showing that good parent-child communication has a braking effect on what researchers call “risk-taking behaviours” in the teen years. To put it in the starkest terms, talking about condoms won’t make your son rush out and buy one, but not talking about condoms could make him a teen father. Pretending the outside world doesn’t exist won’t stop the outside world from knocking on your children’s psychic doors.
I see the outside world seducing my own daughter, who for the past few months has taken to parading in front of the mirror, trying to make belly shirts out of her turtlenecks. Tara and her two closest friends listen and dance to the Hilary Duff CD Metamorphosis, which I admit I bought her. It’s a metamorphosis I’m not entirely comfortable with. Did I mention she’s seven?
Tara’s preening has forced me to vault over the years and imagine her as a teenager. Is there anything I can do now, I ask myself, to prevent the black hole of cliques/popularity/conformity from swallowing her up when she hits 13? If I turn to Judith Rich Harris’s 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption, the answer is “not much.” With its contention that parents have little power to shape their kids’ lives, the book caused an international stir of the how-dare-you variety.
To be fair, Harris’s book hardly lives up to its heretical status. Nowhere does she say that parents don’t matter, simply that they have less control over their kids’ destinies — particularly their personalities and proclivities — than commonly supposed. There’s no guarantee, she argues, that reading to your young child will mould her into a book-loving teen (although it’s an important thing to do anyway). Creating a safe, loving home environment doesn’t necessarily equip your child with confidence in high-school hallways. It’s peer culture, Harris maintains, that shapes him into the teen and adult he’ll become.
But — and this is a big but — Harris says parents can play a role, at least in the early years, in shaping the peer group itself. We can set up playdates with children we consider good influences and limit interactions with others. At the extreme, we can pull our kids out of a toxic school environment and give them a fresh start with more salutary peers.
The “peers rule” phenomenon comes under a different scope in a new book called Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter. Co-written by psychologist Gordon Neufeld and family doctor Gabor Maté, both from Vancouver, the book turns Harris’s theory on its head by claiming that the primacy of the peer group is not a given. The authors contrast peer-oriented children with parent-oriented children, and argue that an overreliance on peers can lead children down the twin paths of conformity and mediocrity.
When I reached co-author Neufeld, just days after the book’s release, he was already dismayed at the way reviewers had interpreted his thesis. “I’m not accusing parents of being negligent,” he insists. “Peer orientation is the result of social and economic forces. It’s not the parents’ fault.” But parents do need to take steps to counteract the trend, he says — ideally, long before adolescence and its peer orientation set in.
Just what needs to be counteracted? “There’s nothing wrong with having lots of friends,” Neufeld explains. “It’s when the peer group replaces the child’s primary attachment to the parent that problems arise. A child can’t serve two masters, just like a compass can’t point in two directions. If peers become the child’s compass point, parents lose their natural authority and ability to guide. The child no longer cares about pleasing the parent. Once this happens, no reward, punishment or other behavioural strategy will have its desired effect.”
It’s only by building a strong connection with your young child and maintaining that connection over the years, says Neufeld, that you can keep his parent orientation alive. “There’s no reason that sit-down family dinners, games nights and family outings can’t continue as kids get older,” he says. And what to do if your child has already retreated into that “world apart” with her peers? Neufeld recounts how he took a week off work to reconnect with his daughter Tasha, who had come under the spell of a tight-knit peer group that was taking her away from her family and its values. He pulled Tasha out of school to spend the week with him — just the two of them — at a seaside cottage he had rented. Thirteen years old at the time, Natasha initially balked at the prospect of having “nobody” around for a week. “My task was to get in her space in a friendly way, without overdoing it,” says Neufeld. They went on walks , cooked meals together and began to talk as they hadn’t in years. “It was the best thing I ever did for my daughter. We’ve maintained a strong connection ever since.”
Taking a page out of Neufeld’s book, Stacey Kostouris of London, Ont., mother of Deanna, six, and Cora, five, has teamed up with three other mothers of grade-one girls. The moms take turns bringing the girls home for lunch on school days and sticking around during playdates, gaining insight into the fickle dynamics among the girls. Kostouris’s experience with her 15-year-old stepdaughter, Claire, has given her insight. She took Claire’s friends under her wing: “They hang out together at our house. So it’s a lot harder for them to disparage us when they know us so well.”
Hearing all this reinforces my own resolve to nip my daughter’s entrancement with her peers in the bud. Taking a deep breath, I tell Tara we’re going to keep her playdates with her two best friends to one per week. “I don’t want to stop you from hanging out with these kids, but I don’t want Hilary Duff and La Senza to clog up all your brain cells. I want us to stay a strong family, and we do this by spending time together doing family things.” To my surprise, Tara doesn’t raise too much of a fuss.
Now that I’ve started the conversation, I make it my business to keep it going. At the dinner table, in the car, on the way to school, I talk to Tara and her six-year-old brother, Jackson, about developing their own convictions. I talk to them about standing up for weaker peers. I talk to them — a lot — about drinking and driving, even though the concept of drunk is a little abstract to them. Sometimes they roll their eyes, sometimes they poke holes in my arguments, and sometimes they listen. Or so I tell myself.
I don’t expect my kids will be angels when they’re teens. (I don’t expect yours will be, either.) I expect they’ll wage war on algebra or French or community service. I expect they’ll keep secrets and may even lie to us on occasion. But I also believe that, by giving them love they can’t refuse, setting examples they can’t ignore and sharing our values with them when they’re still young and able to hear us, we can see them through.