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Dealing with Teens – Remember Where You Came From

Teens. Just the word is enough to make most parents cringe and it can drive some to run mad. Teenage kids are some of the nastiest little beasts on the planet at times and it’s a wonder half of them survive to adulthood.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times: kids today just aren’t like they were twenty years ago. Now, physically, I think that might be true; I sure don’t remember many fourteen- or fifteen-year-old girls looking like some of the ones I see today do, and you can bet I did my share of looking (okay, ogling) when I was that age. But other than that, are they really so different? I don’t think so. I think we’re the ones who are different, and for most of us, it’s just that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be that age and how to have the kind of fun teenagers do.

I’m not about to set myself up as World’s Best Dad (can you hear the capital letters?). But, I can honestly say I’ve always been very careful to remember what I was like at my daughter’s age whenever there was some question of her behavior. For example, she procrastinates terribly on her homework—not something most parents are surprised at, I’ll bet. But we all have this urge to tell the kids not to do that, and we feel a genuine sense of righteous indignation when they put stuff off ’til the last minute. Why should we, though? I mean, really ... didn’t you stall on your homework sometimes? Man, I sure did, and you know what? I learned better. A few missed assignments, a few bad grades, and the resulting well-deserved brow beating from the folks, and I stopped doing that.

And that’s the thing—I had to learn it the hard way for myself. If my parents had nagged and goaded me into doing things on time all the time, I’d have done it simply to keep them off my back and not because it was the right thing to do. When I learned that lesson, I learned it well and have since been able to manage my time better. Do I still put things off? Sure! But only when I know from experience that I’ll get it done with no problem, because it’s something I can do without difficulty.

Doubtless some parents are outraged reading this; how dare he suggest we not push our kids and make sure they get the best grades? Well, it’s a noble thought, and certainly we as parents have a duty to help out kids out. But are we really helping if we do everything for them just to make sure they get top grades? I don’t think so. I’d rather my daughter do a project on her own and get a B than let me do it and get an A. And make no mistake, once you start “helping,” you end up doing more than you think you do. Next time you help your kids with a project or assignment, write down just what you do for them; you’ll be surprised at how much of the work is yours and yours alone. Kids, of course, are as wise as wolves about this and know darn well to let us do it ... it’s easy for them, and if by some chance it doesn’t result in a good grade, they have the satisfaction of knowing it isn’t their fault.

So, you know what? Next time your kid stalls on their homework over the weekend, let ’em. If they have to stay up until midnight or later on Sunday and wake up with eyes looking like two cherries from a bourbon bottle, that’s okay. It won’t kill them to make one bad grade, and it might help them to learn to start managing their own time. I did that with my own daughter, and you know what? It helped. This is a kid who requires about fourteen hours of sleep a day, it seems; getting only seven one night was a big wake up, no pun intended.

Now, regarding “fun,” or the teenage version of it, which is often a mystery. Learn to relax and play a bit. I make time every week to goof off with my daughter. Just last night we sat on the couch and played with her white board, doodling, playing hangman, and even working in some educational stuff (the game of “name this state” is always a hoot, especially when you’re playing with a kid who can barely draw a stick figure, let alone Iowa.) We play Mario Cart on the Wii sometimes, and go for “Daddy-Daughter Walks” ’round the neighborhood. Those are fun because we talk, and not as father and daughter; we talk like two regular people. Usually the conversation steers itself towards school and how it’s going (a shameless manipulation on my part, I know) and I can find out any problems she’s having. I never talked to my folks about stuff like that; my mom was kind of a hard ass about it and would tell me to suck it up (or some variant of the same), and my dad never quite understood what I was trying to say.

I try to put my education to good use and help her work through things, and it’s no trick; just ask questions and let the kid answer, and they’ll usually work it out for themselves without you telling them how. And often, if it works, I get a great reward; a good, long hug and a thank you for “helping.” I dunno about the rest of you, but hugs from my teenager are like gold: increasingly rare and precious. But you know, I wouldn’t get them as much if I didn’t come down from the Dad Castle sometimes and just relax and talk to her like a person and not an omniscient father figure. Hell, I’ve told her since she could talk that I don’t know everything and never will, and after fourteen years of teasing and trickery, she ought to know better than to believe half of what I say anyway. Believe me, I could write a great story on just the things I’ve told her to “go tell mom” about.

So, in conclusion, I guess it’s best to sum up with this simple bit of advice: lighten up. Let your kids learn from their own mistakes when you can. You can’t save ’em from life and trying to only makes it worse later on. Does this mean you should abrogate your parental duties completely? No! By all means, help when it’s important to. But straight As aren’t a life or death situation; let the kid fail from time to time if she can’t make it without you, especially if it’s because of behavior and not ability. And learn to be a teen again. Talk to them like a buddy if they’ll let you (though admittedly, you have to start this practice early, even their toddler years). They’ll learn the difference between “dad face” and “friend face” and understand the boundaries if you set them. Play sometimes and don’t be afraid to look a little silly. Believe it or not, those are the moments they’ll remember the most later and appreciate.

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