The “Con” of Parenting Teens

What pops into your head when you think about teenagers? About being the parent of one? It seems to be the stage of parenting that people fear most. I believe teens may be the age group most mistrusted, disliked, feared and judged, based merely on them being…. teens! And that is prejudice. I remember overhearing someone voicing concern about parenting teens once, and the reassurance that was given was, “It’s okay. They arrive as babies, remember?” True, but still, they end up being teens, and that’s scary, right?

When I was a girl, I dreamed of being a teacher. Of little people. Definitely not those scary teenagers, thank you very much. I just could not understand what would lead anyone to choose high school teaching! Of course, I now realise my perception was partly formed by what I was observing of how teens behave in the artificial, controlling setting of compulsory high school and I wasn’t liking what I saw.

Our "Rainbow Bay" Holiday

When I was a young mum, we lived in a christian community for five years. After our initial two year training period, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay on as staff and you know what freaked me out the most? Working with “scary teenagers”! Funnily, one of the teen girls that most freaked me out is now a good friend, and the mother of three young triplets who all have muscular dystrophy. It turns out she was a human being just like me. Oh, and for the record, those “scary teens” were actually heaps of fun and many of them became good friends, and they certainly enriched our life more than we could have imagined. It was a privilege and honour to journey with them for a few years.

Do you know what I think scares people the most about teenagers? It’s not the clothing or hairstyles or body piercing or music. Heck, more than a few adults have similar tastes these days! What’s more frightening about teens is that they’re uncontrollable. I mean, teens these days are “out of control” aren’t they? Teens “these days” seem to cause their parents about as much grief as … their parents caused THEIR parents! It gets you wondering, doesn’t it?

Perhaps teens seem uncontrollable because they’re not designed to be controlled! Mira Kirshenbaum and Charles Foster, in their brilliant book, “Parent Teen Breakthrough“, assert that the strongest drive (yes, even stronger than you know what) during adolescence is the drive for independence. And what do they experience during all of their teen years in the high school setting? Control. What do they experience at the hands of 99.9999% of parents? Control. Or rather, attempts at control. Because the truth is, they cannot really be controlled. Not fully.

And neither should they be.

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When parents have used controlling, punitive methods to manage their children’s behaviour during the younger years, the teen years can come as quite a shock, because it is during this phase of life, when teens are biologically wired to move towards independence (in lifestyle, values, thoughts and ideas) that parents suddenly realise control no longer works. “Where there’s a will there’s a way….” And if parents keep on pushing for control, they will often push their child behind a big brick wall of resistance and distance. And parents aren’t the only ones facing the reality that teens are moving into a new phase of life.

Teachers have it tough, too. Not because all teens are “bad” or because all teachers are hopeless. But because we have created an artificial, controlling environment for teenagers and called it “high school”. We take away as much of their power and autonomy as we can and then wonder why they rebel. We have placed many great teachers in those schools, but each of them is given the same task of attempting to control teens, and trying to prepare them for life by keeping them away from real life. By keeping teens in this artificial environment throughout the years in which they’re destined for courageous acts, independence and autonomy, we have created a dynamic called “adolescence” – the wasteland between the wonder of childhood and autonomy of adulthood. And while they’re there, we expect them to sit still, listen quiety, and do what they’re told.

Teens don’t need to be controlled, although they certainly benefit from mentorship and influence. They need relationship. And grace. And forgiveness. And respect. They need parents who believe in them, see the best in them, and create a safe sanctuary for them.

Yes to guidance, no to coercion.
Yes to information, no to lecturing.

In short, teens need connection. They may at times give off a vibe that says they don’t, but deep down they need to feel connected to those who love them; not judged, feared and despised by them because they aren’t behaving in the exact way the parent wishes they would. Yes, they will almost certainly make some choices that parents wish they wouldn’t, but when the connection is strong, and there aren’t the ongoing power struggles so common to many parent-teen relationships, there is more likelihood that parents will have something far more effective than control: INFLUENCE.

Teens also need communication. The type of communication where they are listened to. Really listened to. Not just to the spoken words, but also to the message that lies beneath the angst, the “bad tone”, the swearing….. So many parents talk AT their teens. And they usually don’t want to hear anything scary that their teen might have done. In the Parent Teen Breakthrough book mentioned above, the authors state that if your teens aren’t occasionally telling you something scary, they are probably just not telling. They need to know their parents are SAFE to talk to. And they rarely ever need lecturing. Actually, they never need it! They need information and feedback. They need compassion and safety. They need to have their feelings validated and their needs honoured. They need a safe place for exploring potential strategies that might meet their needs, and the needs of other family members too. Some people refer to this type of process as Non Violent Communication (or Compassionate Communication). And yes, this model includes parents being honest about their needs and feelings too. It isn’t about any one person walking over, or lording it over, the other. It is about mutual respect.

While attempts at controlling teens may seem to result in compliance, any compliance that is gained usually comes at a great cost to the relationship. Is it really worth it?

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So does this mean “letting them run wild”? When I think about a teen “running wild”, I think that perhaps they have something to run FROM. They are much more likely to run from control (or the absence of connection), than from connection. They need parents who truly, genuinely care about THEM, even more than they care about whether they are good poster children or not. When all is said and done, if your teen makes some choices along the way that make your hair stand on end, it helps to remember that they are human just like their parents. In the midst of those choices, if they feel unconditionally loved by their parents and connected to them, and if they feel safe in their relationship with their parents, the relationship will remain long after the choices and their consequences are like dots on a distant horizon.

Helicopter Homeschooling?

© Admonic | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

We recently had lunch at the boat harbour and watched a poor helpless seagull attempt to fly with some fishing line stuck around its foot and a rock attached to the bottom of the line. The poor bird just couldn’t get more than 10 feet off the ground, and had to keep returning to rest, never able to fly off and explore the great unknown, or even to find fish for itself.

Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with a rock attached to one foot? Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with its mother hanging onto its wings, pulling it back down “to keep it safe”? How ridiculous that would be!

Can you imagine a teen trying to fly with a parent holding on out of fear of what might happen, or what choices they might make, or what choices other people might make?

I attach a rock to my teen’s foot when I hold on too tightly at the edge of my comfort zone, when I doubt his ability to make decisions, when I undermine his confidence in himself because I don’t have confidence in him. I hold my teen back when I think I know better than he does about his life. I hold my teen back when I care more about what others might think of him, than I do about how he feels about himself.

“Are you okay?” phone calls every five minutes may meet the parent’s need for reassurance, but are unlikely to meet the teen’s need for growing independence.

I limit my close relationship with my teen when I talk to or AT her rather than listen, when I pre-empt what she will say and listen with only half an ear, when I jump in with solutions rather than validating her feelings and letting the solutions come to my teen with my support alongside her.

A child who has a parent hovering and intervening all the time loses the trust that they need in their own ability to navigate this life wisely. They are actually more likely to make mistakes or to have errors in judgement, when they are constantly looking to us for validation, or having us constantly “saving the day” for them and averting “disaster”.

When we react with fear, we instil fear. Or resentment. When we react with calm confidence, and provide snippets of information that will hopefully help them to make wise decisions, they almost always… make wise decisions! If we seek to control their decisions, they are likely to resent us, or lose confidence in their ability to make decisions. When we provide information, they are more likely to use that information in helping them to act wisely. A simple example of this is a parent insisting that their child put a coat on because it’s cold outside. If, instead, the parent comment (authentically, not in that icky condescending parental tone)  that they themselves feel really cold and want to put a jacket on, the child is more likely to use that information to make a similar choice.

Many of us are blessed with “experiential learners” who seem to need to experience the impact of their choices to learn what they might do differently next time. But what about a child running into the street, I hear you cry out! I wonder what it was in our collective childhood experience to do with cars and dangerous streets, that causes almost every parent to come up with that as the example of what could go wrong if we start trusting our children.

As the author states in Parent Teen Breakthrough (my parenting teens “Bible”), a teen (or child) is far more likely to accept your loving help and guidance within the context of a loving, respectful relationship, than when the relationship is an adversarial one with power struggles being prominent. The subtitle of the book is “The Relationship Approach”, which is apt because the relationship we have with our teen is far more important than whether or not they “do as we say”. When a loving relationship is the most important thing, and they make a choice that ends up going badly, they’re far more likely to come to us for support and guidance, than if the relationship was more adversarial, and they’d been told a firm “No!” but done it anyway. As they begin to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of independence, they will have a more grounded confidence and be less inclined to push the boundaries for the sake of it, if they know that we are on their team, fully support them and will be there for them no matter what happens, without “jumping down their throats” if they make a choice that we wouldn’t make or get themselves into trouble.

It is so easy for us to forget what it was like to be a child, to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood. It is so easy to only look at the situation from the perspective of parenthood, with our heightened awareness of our responsibility and duty of care towards our children. It is so easy to forget the carefree nature of childhood, and the desperate desire for autonomy that increases as they move into adolescence (and is often also very present in toddlerhood!) And to forget that a teen has such a strong desire for autonomy that if they feel too restricted and controlled, they are actually MORE likely to push the restrictions and resist/resent the control!

Our teens will benefit from our care and guidance if it is done with love, not control (read the book for some great examples and specifics of how this really can work, and how inappropriate control is to parenting teens!). But how on earth do we live at the edge of our comfort zone without going crazy? It really helps to be honest about our feelings of fear, concern etc. and also our need to nurture and provide safety where possible, but to also listen to their feelings and needs as well! This is another situation where the tool of Non Violent Communication can really help us to provide an environment where the needs of both children and parents can be met, and all feelings respected. I’ll be posting later about the second NVC workshop I did, that will flesh this out a bit more.

I believe that, as unschooling parents, our job is to equip and empower our children, not hover like a helicopter, just in case…. Just in case what? The big baddie grabs them? The car runs them over in the street? They can’t do their times tables? They become a drug addict? They can’t get in to university?

Does it stand to reason that a child with a helicopter parent hovering above them pointing out every little thing, or pulling and pushing at all the right times, is necessarily any more likely to avoid any of the above scenarios? And even if they do come through childhood & adolescence seemingly unscathed, at what cost does their safety come?

Many people seem to assume that home educating parents choose to do so out of a desire to protect their children from the big bad world, and that they severely restrict their access to people and experiences outside of the immediate family and very carefully selected friends. I think, in some selective cases, this is in fact true. And I think that one of our roles as parents IS to provide a safe, protected harbour for our children to call home. But I don’t think we need to lock the anchor into position, and put up barricades around them. And I don’t think that their only experience of the ocean needs to be at the aquarium where they can look at the sea creatures from behind a glass wall.

I think it’s about getting into the water, getting wet, taking the boat out beyond the crashing waves to where the water is deep and clear, and filled with all sorts of wonderful, exciting, and yes sometimes scary creatures! It doesn’t mean we have to send them out alone. It’s usually much more fun together! But there are times when they will want to spread their wings and have a go at flying solo for a while. And I don’t believe that tying a rock around their ankle helps them to fly.

We helped rescue a baby magpie once. We made a little temporary nest in our yard, having been advised that it had probably fallen out of the nest too soon, or had perhaps been pushed out before it was fully ready to fly. We felt like we were doing a GREAT job of being “mothers” to the little bird. And there was quite a few of us, because our children had friends visiting. We suddenly looked up and saw that the mother was actually perched above us on the power line, ready with a worm in her mouth to feed her baby. We slowly stepped out of the way as quietly as a bunch of kids can do, and watched in awe as the mother gently flew down and fed her little one. Then the baby started to hop along on the ground while the mother flew alongside, just above him. It was a truly wondrous thing to watch this mother take her baby home. It seemed it had been indeed too soon for him to leave the nest. But what happened next took our breath away. The mum perched on top of a fence in the laneway, and the baby hopped along on the ground beneath her. Then the mother flew slightly higher to perch on top of a garage and the baby flapped its wings and clumsily hopped up onto a one foot tall concrete edge that ran along the bottom of the fence. Gradually they made it to the bottom of the laneway and the baby was making more and more attempts to fly up to the top of the fence to join the mother. At the bottom of the lane was the tree where the nest obviously was. And this is where the baby really nailed the flying thing. The mother hopped along the lower branches, encouraging the little one to copy. And then suddenly the baby flew right up to the nest and snuggled back in home.

The magpie mother in this story is a beautiful example of the kind of partnership that I’ve seen work so well with connected, loving, unschooling families. The parent is aware, observant, available, hands-on, connected, informative but not manipulative, interested, interesting, honest, trusting, and ready with a worm at just the right time.

Not a rock.

My “Unsocialised” Teen

Hervey Bay Pier

Well, I must admit, people did warn me. They knew that keeping my children out of school would be a disaster, socially. That they would be totally inept in social settings, and unable to relate to people.

But you know what?

They were so very wrong. 🙂

Take tonight, for example. I picked up my fifteen year old son from the cafe where he is currently working as a barista. In the car driving home, we had a very typical conversation, centred around his insights into human personality, behaviour, and interactions. Tonight it was about the cafe manager. Nobody particularly likes him, and since he has been managing the cafe, he has fired at least one person a week, for hard to understand reasons. My son commented (not rudely) that he is “Like a robot. He treats everybody the same. He talks to people, but he interacts the same way with each person. He doesn’t respond differently based on who he is talking to. He doesn’t connect with them or respond to them as individuals.” This is with both staff and customers.

My son then went on to talk about how differently he interacts with the customers. If a family is there with children, he speaks directly to the children and asks them what they’d like. He commented that “So many people just don’t treat children like real people”. When he noticed a child eye balling the jar of marshmallows recently, he quietly checked with the parent if is was ok for the child to have one, and he brought it over to the child specially. He talked about how important it is for both parents and children to feel comfortable at the cafe.

He even said (don’t be too shocked!) that sometimes swearing a little bit helps people to feel more comfortable, if the person themselves is swearing. The example he gave was of a customer who was swearing a bit in talking to his cafe friends, and also when interacting with the staff. He wasn’t angry; it was just the way he spoke. He asked my son how his night was going, and my son responded with a mild swear word in his answer, believing that it would make the customer feel a bit more comfortable, which it seemed to do. He realises that this isn’t appropriate with lots of people, particularly children and older people, or just people who aren’t swearing themselves.

He just seems to understand that it is helpful to interact differently with different people, and that it is important to respond appropriately to particular situations.

He reads people so well, often making insightful comments about someone’s body language or tone of voice, and accurately interprets what that means. He understands the social intricacies of a variety of relationships and human interactions. He contemplated being a counsellor for awhile, although he is currently thinking he won’t do that after all. I know, however, that his “people skills” will come in handy no matter what long term career path he chooses, and the steps he takes along the way.

These social skills were obviously honed in the school setting. Oh, that’s right. He hasn’t been to school since he was 7 years old. 🙂

I’d love to hear some comments from people who are unschooling or home educating their children, with examples of their social skills. Let’s show the world that our kids are ok, and that they don’t need to go to school to “be socialised”. In fact, they’re socialised more fully by living in the real world rather than being sequestered at school. Unschooling rocks! 🙂

Unschooling Teens

So……. the big t.t.t.t.teenager question!! Many people feel confident to homeschool or unschool the primary years, but when it comes to the high school age group their legs turn to jelly! I guess I can understand this in a way. I mean, we all dropped out of school before the high school years didn’t we? So we wouldn’t have a clue, of course! But the truth is, most of us (if not all of us) went to high school and even graduated from high school, but somehow we don’t feel confident to walk through these years alongside our teenagers. We can so easily sit in a place of fear, biting our nails, and looking anxiously over our shoulder to see how everyone else is performing, and looking at our own child, wondering if they’ll “turn out okay”.

The truth is, though, that if they know how to find out answers to their questions, and they have curious minds, and a good relationship with their family, THEY. WILL. BE. OKAY!! In fact, they will be more than okay, they will thrive!!

But here is the disclaimer: it might not look anything like you expect it to, or like you hoped it would! My husband had expected that our kids would grow up to be academic types, following the traditional university route, but at this point in time, that doesn’t seem to be the case. And you know what? It really doesn’t matter! The world needs a huge variety of people to make it interesting, and to make it function well. I don’t see any of us telling the garbage truck driver to leave the bin on the side of the road thanks, we’re happy to take it to the tip ourselves every week! My teens aren’t planning to drive a garbage truck for a living, but you know what? Someone has to have that job, or we’re all going to bemoan the day we thought “everyone should go to uni”. Of course, we all want our children to be “successful”; but it’s helpful to think about what success really means!

So what about my teenagers?? Well it’s a long time since we’ve done any kind of traditional “school work”. My oldest just turned 18 (how did THAT happen!!) and he left school when he was in Year 5. My second oldest is 15 and he left school when he was in Year 3. Since then (after about one week of grade level, schoolish workbooks), our life has really been totally free-form, free-ranging, come-what-may….. We’ve done what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it. We’ve been to interesting places, done interesting things, met interesting people, and also done a whole lot of ……. NOTHING!

And you know what? I think teenagers really need the opportunity to do that! Or NOT to do it, as the case may be! 🙂  Time to daydream, sleep in, stay up late, eat lots of food, read books & magazines (or not), sleep in, play games of all types (yes, including the electrical kind), sleep in, hang out with friends, eat lots of food, spend long days at the beach, sleep in, go to the skate park, kick a football around, eat lots of food, join a gym, sleep in, watch movies, eat lots of food, explore their interests, go on family holidays, sleep in, ….. Oh did I mention food?? And sleeping???

Seriously, sometimes it feels like teenagers (well, boys at least, I haven’t had a girl teen yet) go to sleep as boys one day, and wake up about 2 years later all hairy and with deep voices. (And sometimes the hair is a bit on the wild side!!)

Somehow they manage to get up for food, but apart from that it can seem that for quite some time they’re not doing much else. And you know what? That’s OK! In fact, I think it’s probably exactly what they need.

And it’s exactly what they usually DON’T get if they go to school. I am so glad my boys have had the chance to take life at their own pace, rather than being swept along in the madness and driven-ness of school and all the extra-curricular activities. I still remember the sadness I felt when watching an SBS documentary where they were trying to help a teenager who was very depressed and had been suicidal. He was having trouble sleeping, and having trouble getting up for school. They tested him and found that he had “delayed sleep phase syndrome”. The solution they prescribed included light therapy etc, to try to get his body clock to be more synchronised with the hours of the school system, so he could cope with getting up for school etc. He tried the therapy for awhile but did not stick with it. At the end of the program there was a discussion with the psychologist and the boys’ mother, and the comment was made that he “simply has to go to school” so they had to do whatever they could to get him through. I thought it was tragic, and I’d hate to think how they would feel if he ended up acting on his suicidal thoughts. I beg to differ about the idea that he “has to go to school”. He could leave school, and live in harmony with his natural sleep patterns! I imagine they didn’t realise homeschooling or unschooling was a valid option? I know that I would never make my child stay in a situation where they were depressed and suicidal because they were so chronically tired. And I am so thankful that my teenagers have been able to sleep when they’re tired, and get up when they’ve had enough sleep. And you know what? They spent a lot of time sleeping in very late, but they’re also very capable of getting up at the crack or dawn or before, if they want to go for an early surf, or if they have to be at work early, or if they just decide they want to get up earlier. No problems.

There’s also another aspect of adolescence that seems vital, and that’s having the opportunity to do something REAL, that matters. Schools do this by offering leadership opportunities, etc, but this will only suit the cream of the crop. The vast majority will be going through the motions that have been chosen for them. What I love about unschooling teens is that they get to do what matters – to them! It’s authentic, it’s real, it’s usually self-initiated (yet supported by their parents where necessary or helpful)! They get to be true to themselves, and really get to know themselves, their likes and dislikes & their interests (without being limited to school type subjects, or having to choose electives that are on the right strand, or that the school offers).

For quite awhile it seemed that my teenagers’ only “subject” was bodyboarding! Outside of that it seemed they just “loafed around”, spent time on Facebook, watched TV etc. I felt concerned for awhile. OK, I admit it, I was very concerned. I was worried that they “weren’t learning anything”. I kept suggesting things they could be “doing” but was usually met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. I kept trying to think of ways to bring more things into their life in keeping with their passion. I subscribed them to bodyboarding magazines (English: check), I bought a book they seemed interested in called “The Science of Surfing” (English/Science: check) etc…… I’m sure those things helped, but what was most important, I think, was to really learn to TRUST. Not to fear.

I am so glad I didn’t interfere out of panic. I offered lots of ideas and possibilities, and I learned (eventually) not to judge their “No thanks” answer, either with a sigh or rolled eyes (I didn’t even realise I was doing that until they pointed it out, because it was very subtle).

My now 18 year old son (as of a couple of days ago) decided a couple of years back that he REALLY wanted to get his “Year 10 Certificate” through the TAFE system. This came about mostly because all of his friends from his work went to school, and that’s what they were doing. They were getting that piece of paper that said they’d made it to that level of education. My son placed a lot more value on it than I did, I have to say!. I tried to encourage him to study a specific subject area at TAFE, rather than the “General Vocation & Education” course that was the equivalency to Year 10 at school. But he was absolutely determined. He started off studying by correspondence but realised that didn’t suit him, so the following year he applied to go to TAFE face to face and complete his studies there. And you know what? He THRIVED. His teachers rave about him, referring to him as their “best student”, and he has finished off the year with distinctions in most subjects. Personally, I found the TAFE system to be a good follow-on from unschooling, because the students are treated as adults and with a lot more autonomy than the school system can give. Admittedly, most kids his age have completed their next level of schooling, but I honestly don’t think that matters. My son has enjoyed a rich and interesting adolescence, and he has chosen of his own volition to get this formal qualification. He how has a few eggs in the basket and he’s not sure which one he will act on. He is applying for an apprenticeship, he has applied to do a Certificate 3 in Fitness at TAFE, and he’s doing a Barista course later this year. These are all things of his own choosing. In fact, I didn’t even realise he’d started the proceedings for procuring an apprenticeship until after it had happened! He has also entertained the idea of perhaps studying teaching at uni (which is kind of funny!) or even the police force. I can really see him doing any of these things, and he has the determination and perseverance to achieve whatever he sets his mind to.

My 15 year old son ended up getting a job at McDonalds when he was 14 (his big brother had done the same thing), and while he was still 14 he was promoted to crew trainer. After 6-12 months he’d had enough of that type of work and decided to leave. When he told his boss at work that he was considering leaving and going to TAFE, his boss really didn’t want to let him go, and convinced him to study a Certificate 2 in Retail through his work. My son, being the wise one that he is, decided it seemed logical, since they would supervise his course and also pay for it! He’s almost finished that Certificate now. They said it would take 2 years. It has taken about 3 months. Now he’s decided that he’s very keen to get into the cafe scene, so he is going to do a barista course, and has applied to study a Certificate 3 in Hospitality at TAFE next year. He’s been looking up to see how far he can go with studies in that subject area, because he’d probably like to go to uni one day. He’s very keen to explore the possibility of owning or managing a cafe, too. He’s also contemplated the idea of counselling, which doesn’t surprise me, because people are often turning to him for advice, support and encouragement. He is incredibly insightful, perceptive and intuitive, with a deep understanding of human nature and behaviour. And that would come in really handy in the hospitality industry too. In fact, it’s a skill that will help him immensely, no matter what he decides to do.

I feel so blessed to have had these boys at home throughout their teenage years. Well, not always at home! Often gallavanting around the countryside! But I’m glad that home has been their base, not the schoolyard. I’m glad they’ve been free to be themselves, and to now step out and explore various opportunities for study and work outside of the family unit. It has not been a bed of roses, and living in close proximity can at times put stresses and strains on the familial relationships, but when all is said and done, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I don’t know what the future holds for them, but I know it will be just what they want it to be, which means it will be wonderful.

It will be interesting to see if there are any differences in terms of process and outcome with my younger two children, who have never been to school.