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I’ve been father to eight teens now, and I’ve written more than once about that because — eight teens is a lot.
But as friends enter their “parent-of-teen” years keep asking questions, I find I still have more to say. If some of these lessons sound a bit obvious, know that there are plenty of people who need to hear the obvious things over and over again. I’m one.
1: No two teens are the same.
The fact that I have to say this reveals the blind spot people like me have: We tend to think of teens as members of an undifferentiated mass of adolescents who have the same hopes, fears, and qualities.
But when I think over the mistakes I make raising teens, I see a clear pattern: If I was too trusting of Child A, it made me too suspicious of Child B; if I expected too much of Child C, I was too easy on Child D. In each case, I committed the same error: Failing to know and treat each child as a unique individual.
2: Make sure you hear what they need to say.
There are two problems with teens: First, they rarely tell us what is on their mind, and, second, when they do we are likely to be either exhausted, distracted, or asleep.
It takes physical effort to listen to a teen: During daylight hours, you need to move your body toward the teen and put away your distraction. And during nighttime hours, when teens are most likely to talk, you have to be awake and available, even if it means changing your routine to have a later bedtime, even if they don’t talk to you for 30 out of the 31 days you do so.
3: Make sure you say what they need to hear.
There are important things that teens need to hear, and often there’s no good time to say them. So you have to just say them: You have to tell them about sex and dating and finances.
If you’re no good at talking about these, then, like me, you will just say them during car rides or one-on-one meal conversations, always with a second safe topic to move on to afterwards.
4: Be open to their good advice …
It’s hard to be a teen, no longer as naïve as a child but not yet taken seriously as an adult. Parents often have to reject what teens say, because teens are often wrong.
But too often we treat teens as if they’re always wrong. That’s why it’s important to make a special effort to be open to what teens have to say. As St. Benedict put it in his Rule, “it is often to a junior that the Lord reveals what is best.”
5: … but reject their moody negativity.
Of course, there is an opposite problem, one that I am particularly prone to: We are so eager to keep a relationship with our teen positive that we give in too easily. If they are unhappy with our decision, we change it; if they insist on something we know they don’t need, we get it anyway.
Don’t. With one teen in particular, I forced myself to be strict against every ingratiating instinct of my body, and my relationship got better, not worse.
6: Beware of under-doing prayer commitments.
Along the same lines as No. 5, when our teens begin to roll their eyes at the prayers they once joined enthusiastically, it’s easy to give in. We tell ourselves that we don’t want to be the kind of rigid, pushy parents whose insistence on religion pushes children away.
That’s a good instinct. But under-doing prayer commitments is a more common problem than overdoing them. The teen years are a golden time when you still have some say over how they spend their time, and it’s your duty to help them do the minimum: Daily prayer, Sunday Mass, monthly confession, and service to those in need.
7: Embrace your battles.
We parents of teens love the phrase, “You have to pick your battles,” by which we mean we are being strategic about our discipline. But sometimes when we say that we really mean, “I’m tired, so I’m caving.”
Yes, choose which issues that you will make a big deal out of and which you will ignore for now. But on the “big deal” issues you choose, fight the good fight to the end, and never cave.
8: Tell God what you love about your teen.
It’s been helpful for me to thank God in detail about the specific qualities of the teens he gave me. It helps me see them through his eyes.
He created them the way he did as his gift to the world, me included. And the more I’m on the same page as him, the better raising my teen will go.