The temptation is to think that adolescents need us less than our younger children do. Nope. In some ways, adolescents need us more. The vulnerability of modern adolescents is unprecedented.
When I was in high school, my drug/alcohol experimentation began and ended with rolling dry rosemary up in notebook paper and smoking it. That and a bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine. I use the word “wine” loosely. More a collision of hummingbird food and rancid cider than actual wine. Today’s adolescent drug/alcohol experiments are about Ecstasy and methamphetamine.
When I was in high school, a bully hit me in the back with a raw egg. Today’s bullies hit you in the back with bullets.
I grew up in the Golden Age of television. Childrearing gurus worried about the violence and sex. Oh yeah. Roadrunner & Coyote. Gunsmoke. Kung Fu. Darren & Samantha Stevens (Bewitched) moving into one marriage bed, scorning the twin beds preferred by Rob & Laura Petrie (Dick Van Dyke). Today it’s Melrose Place, which I renamed “Everybody Sleeps With Everybody.” Pretty sure the show ended, in fact, after every sex liaison combination had been explored. There were just no more plot options after that.
I discovered my father’s Playboy stash when I was 13. There was a naked woman standing next to a few bales of hay in bright, natural light. She had the same bright cheery smile my mom had on Christmas morning. Her smile seemed to say, “Come to think of it, I don’t know why I’m naked. In fact, wasn’t entirely aware I was naked until you pointed it out.” It was more cute than sexual. More like visiting a nudist colony volleyball game. Today’s adolescents can, in an instant, find and see anything. Anything. And none of those women smile like my mom.
In many ways, modern adolescents are more vulnerable than your toddler.
I encourage parents of teens to assemble a list entitled “Things I’m Willing to Die For.” I mean a list of things you will never negotiate, tolerate, or normalize. Boundaries that will never budge. Ever. The list should be short. If there are more than five items, rethink it.
Here’s my list:
I don’t care if you like me or admire me. Ultimately, I don’t care if you love me. But, if you’re gonna live here, you will practice common courtesy. When I say “good morning,” you will say “good morning.” When I say “please pass the green beans,” you hand me the green beans. You show up for the normal rhythms of family: meals, holidays, funerals, weddings. You bathe. You live in reciprocity. You don’t have the option of “not talking about it.” The only people allowed to live here are people in relationship. People in relationships talk. In our family, we talk. No exceptions.
Wake up. Get up. Dress, brush your teeth, and comb your hair. Go to class. Do the work. Turn in your assignments. My expectation for GPA will vary depending on my assessment of your academic efforts and abilities. But there is no excuse for not doing the work. For not turning the work in on time. Education is on my list of “Willing to Die For” because it is such an accurate indicator of adolescent social and mental health. When teens are in trouble, grades plummet.
On your 18th birthday, if you’d like to trade your soul for addiction, then knock yourself out. But get outa my house. Until then, I’ll quit my job if that’s what it takes to save you from addiction. I’ll search your room. I’ll spy, snoop, rummage your pants pockets, read your diary, have you followed or follow you myself. If drugs aren’t evil, they will do ‘til evil gets here. Not happening.
I welcome your anger, and I promise you will sometimes hear mine. But violence is just not what we do in this family. Not with your hands or your words. Ever. I have never degraded you with profanity. I have never laid my hands on you in violence. Nor threatened to do so with words. “Business as usual” is OVER the moment you try any of those things with me.
Not on the list: make your bed, never die your hair purple, never have sex until your married and make sure your bride is a certified virgin, or make sure I approve of your religious practice or lack thereof.
It’s not that I don’t have opinions and values about such things. It’s just that, when it comes to raising adolescents, I choose my battlefields carefully.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at email@example.com.)