I don’t know how to parent a teenager but I think I know how not to parent one.
In other words, I don’t know how to stop a teenager from being rude or sarcastic, make her act with adult-like judgment, prevent her from experimenting with… stuff, and ensure that she starts studying for her math test five days in advance of the exam. I don’t know how to do any of that and, what’s more, I’m quite sure that the countless parenting “experts” don’t either.
What I do think I know how to do is not close down communication with a teen so that you have an idea of what your kid is actually up to (as opposed to what you naively think they are up to) and so that you can possibly—if you’re really lucky--exert some modicum of influence on her behavior.
I like to call this “realist parenting” because it acknowledges what parents don’t control and what they just might control if they play their cards right. Realist parenting refuses to trade the possibility of influence for the illusion of power. Realist parenting starts with how things actually are, and acts within that reality.
Realist parents know that teens face a myriad of influences, from their genetic makeup to their peer group culture to the ever-present media. They know that we parents are but one voice--albeit an import one--in our teen’s development. They take an honest look at each kid, their peer group, and their attitudes toward the world, and try to guide their kids within those parameters. They accept conduct in their teens that they don’t much like in order to bear some influence on their teens from doing something even worse. Realist parents would rather hear the truth and talk about it, than try to enforce the unenforceable.
Realist parents know that some kids will readily comply with parental dictates, some kids will partially comply and partially rebel, and some kids will give us total hell. Realist parents attempt to go as far as they can but no farther in influencing the choices of their complicated teens. They know what worked for their obedient first child may not work for their wild and temperamental second child.
Un-realist parents, by contrast, like to think that if they use the right combination of carrots and sticks, they can keep their kids on the straight and narrow. And because they think they can stop their teens from doing stupid teen things, their kids simply don’t tell them about the stupid teen things they do. By overestimating their power over their kids, the un-realist parent loses the opportunity to influence her teen’s behavior by the only real parental weapon parents have —talking with them in a mature and thoughtful manner.
Un-realist parents may suspect that their teens are up to no good and play an endless game of cat and mouse. Their kids become experts in not getting caught. In the process of trying to catch their kids in the act, un-realist parents actually bid up the value of the undesirable behavior. A parent who does everything he can to prevent his 16 year old son and his friends from drinking alcohol probably only makes drinking more desirable, like it was during prohibition. That parent may successfully stop the drinking party at the neighbor’s house from happening one time, but he can do nothing to prevent the same kids from drinking at the nearby park, which involves more driving around and greater risks. By unrealisitcally trying to lower the risks he elevates them.
More often than not, however, un-realist parents simply don’t know what their kids are up to. How do I know this? Realist parents tend to hear not only about their own kids’ lives, but about the lives of other kids as well. They know that the un-realist parent's kid smokes marijuana frequently and does everything he can to hide it from his parents. Unfortunately, the un-realist parent is missing out on the opportunity to influence the frequency that the teen uses marijuana or her decision to draw the line with marijuana or the all important choice to decline driving while under the influence.
There are many realist parents out there. But we tend to stay quiet for fear of being judged by the un-realist parents for being permissive or indifferent. So we realist parents often pretend to be more “strict” than we actually are. It’s good for neighborly relations.
Maybe it’s time, however, that realist parents come out of the woodwork. Somebody’s got to tell the emperor that he has no cloths.