Scott and I had this parenting notion: Show me who you are. This was extremely helpful. When our sons showed us who they were – as they were figuring this out – they turned out to be delightful and talented people. Not one of them fit a preconceived notion of who they might be.
Support their interests. We did not make demands on Scout participation or certain athletics or after-school activities. We had only one “must” and it was that they must take piano lessons until they could accompany others. Each of them did this and we were amazed when they continued their lessons way beyond the point where we thought they would quit. As parents, we paid for a lot of lessons in several fields, drove them to their lessons until they could drive, and we attended every activity we could, which turned out to be most of them.
Feed them and feed any of their friends, and let your home be the gathering place. This involves extra money and lots of late hours, but it was great having them know they could always invite friends over, and our home came to be known as a “safe place” to hang out, by kids and parents alike. As a result, we knew their friends well–and enjoyed the interaction. Also, one cannot underestimate what we learned while everyone was hanging out here. The casual eavesdropping opportunities were tremendous – so we had a pulse on what was going on with them and their friends. This also leads to another tip: drive them and their friends where they want to go. The parent at the wheel becomes invisible and SO MUCH info is dropped in the conversations.
Look for something to praise and compliment every single day – and then SAY it, don’t just think it. Also tell them you love them whenever they walk out the door or end a call. Every single day. We always did this, but became extra-motivated when friends of ours lost their son in a car accident and were comforted knowing that the last words exchanged were, “I love you.”
We are strong advocates of natural consequences for choices and behaviors. We also tried to be VERY consistent: we did what we said we would do (so we were careful about what we agreed to). Most of our house rules and policy evolved through a democratic family council method. Our boys had a lot to say about what happened in our home, even down to furniture choices.
We granted them three (and only three) “saves” for each school year. They had to use these saves wisely – having us bring stuff to school they forgot, etc. This helped them to be responsible for their work. If they had to stay after school for detention – my coming to get them was a “save.” Each son had only one detention in all their school years. But they each had one. Each usually used up their “saves” in a year. Now that they are grown, we have funny family stories about these.
Reflective listening is powerful and helps them know they are heard. This method also defuses arguments. As parents, we worked hard to listen and allow them to talk, then we’d feed back what we heard in a neutral tone of voice (sometimes hard to do): “You must feel very frustrated.” “Wow, that must have been hard.” “Yikes, what did you choose to do about THAT?”
Have them check in with you when they come home. We always waited up for our kids, no matter how tired we were. They had to check in with us. We placed two comfy chairs at the end of our bed, and the kids developed a habit of dropping into those chairs or on the foot of our bed to talk about their night or day. Sometimes we would be there into the wee hours. We had an unspoken policy if they wanted to talk, we would listen (and stay awake).
Let them have complete stewardship of their rooms. I RARELY went in their rooms. Laundry was done only if it was delivered to the laundry room. Each of them went through a period when they lived wearing the clothes off their floor and sent their laundry down in huge heaps occasionally. If they wanted to keep the rooms messy, then that was their choice. (Choose your battles.)
Which brings me to my final three tips for parenting teens:
Have fun with them every single week. We often had some family activity each week.
Laugh a lot. “Save the day with laughter,” as Grandma taught.
Talk (and listen) a lot. Be sure to ask questions that cannot be answered with a grunt or shrug, a yes or no. Here are two good leads, “Tell me about…” or “How did you feel when…?”
Wow. I’m going on and on. It’s kind of fun to think back on this and realize that a lot of this really worked. We still love each other. We’re friends. They are delightful and responsible adults with unique talents. I occasionally told them back then, and I’ve told them a few times since they’ve left home: I have many weaknesses and have made errors, but one thing I know about myself and about them is that I was a really good mother. They seem to believe my press statement.
Annette Paxman Bowen is the author of three books, including one about connecting with teens. She currently works as a public affairs media director.