My son was given a writing project for health class about high risk behavior in teens. One of the prompts was to discuss what parents can do to prevent high risk behavior in teens. Upon reviewing my student’s method of mitigating high risk behavior, I am reminded of a method for discipline we used to use in youth recreation, where we let the children choose their own consequences for breaking rules. It was always much harsher than the ones we would have given, allowing us to dial back their self-imposed penance. We disciplined the child and still managed to look like the good guy.
His response was to isolate the teen from peer contact. This put me back in summer camp with those over the top consequences kids would choose. I thought it might be interesting to address this from a parent’s perspective.
My first defense in keeping my children from making dangerous choices is to try to ensure that they know they are loved – wildly, deeply, uncontrollably and irrevocably loved. By me, and by their heavenly Father. Love is the foundation that any and all other actions must be built on. I try to tell them every day, every chance I get, that I love them. I try to NOT tell them like I say “turn off the lights”, but to smile it from my heart at them. I tell them when I am deliriously happy, and when I am abjectly sad, and when I am completely furious, and sometimes out of the blue when we are just doing nothing. I hug them and kiss their cheeks and touch their shoulders in church and sing at them and post embarrassing stuff on facebook and watch movies I have no interest in seeing just to hang out with them and a thousand other small things. In all times, in all emotions, in every way, they are loved.
The second layer of this protection is to make sure that my children clearly know what is expected of them. I expect them to represent themselves in a manner that will honor themselves, our family and our God. There is no “boys will be boys”, because these are young men. I talk honestly and openly about the different choices they can make and the consequences that will happen. If you speed, we can’t afford car insurance, and you don’t get to drive until you are 18 and have your own policy. If you don’t take care of your grades, you will be ineligible for these colleges and these scholarships. If you engage in premarital sex, you have violated covenant with God and already with the wife you haven’t even met yet. If you drink, you could end up doing something stupid, and going to prison for the rest of your life, and be ineligible for the military, these colleges, these programs, etc. Plus you lose my trust. If you drive carelessly, and die, you will destroy a part of your mother’s soul. If you take care of your grades, all of these choices are available to you after high school. If you treat women respectfully, they will adore you in return. If you stand for what you believe, you will be respected for it in the long run. And so on. Not in lecture form (usually) but in the course of life. Decisions they make as teens affect the rest of their lives in big ways, and I want them to be so very aware of that. You only live once, as it is popular to say. Why waste that life on stupid choices now for the rest of that one very precious life? Because they are aware of actions resulting in consequences, their actions are treated as purposeful choices. Young men stand accountable for their actions.
The third tier is to cover all of that with a thick coating of grace. They are teenagers. Their minds aren’t fully formed. They are discovering and developing who and what they are going to be as adults. When they were little, I was the sheepdog of my flock, herding them this way and that, making darn sure they stayed safe. Now that they are in this transforming stage of life, my job is to stand guard on the hill, where I can see big threats coming and react accordingly, but giving them room to get bumped and banged up a little. Grace helps me to know that this isn’t personal. I can’t become a man for them, so they have to pull away more and more from me as they work out their own becoming. My job isn’t to hold their hand as they walk the balance beam of childhood, it is to be the safety net under this tightrope walk in-between stage. Grace allows me to accept the mistakes they make, the times they fall, the hurtful, hormone fueled words that come out of their mouths when we are all talking, but no one feels heard. Grace gives me room to make mistakes, too, and admit those and ask forgiveness and move forward again. This is something I am still working on. It is to let them be THEM, and not who I see them being. None of my kids sees themselves in the career I think would be perfect for them. None of them is drawn to girls that I think would be perfect. They don’t like the same genres of books, and we have different ideas of fun. They have their own take on school, and homework and grades and what learning looks like. And that is good. I am learning to let go of my vision of who I thought they would grow up to be when they were still littles, and to enjoy being a part of who they are actually going to grow up to be.
My fourth layer is to be involved. To let them have their space, but to know who they are with, and to get to know who they are with. To let them tell me what they did, and how and where and why. To trust them when they tell me where they will be. To go to games and talk to teachers and friend’s parents and their co-workers. Not to be nosy, but to stay in touch with their lives. To let them out of my world, and show them the respect of being interested in theirs. To check out what they are reading, and look at the pictures they take – a little insight into what interests my kids, and what caught their eye enough to want to remember it on film. To hear their dreams and hopes without discouraging them from that – life will do that on it’s own. Right now, it is a whole big world.
The last line of defense is my authority as the parent. When all else fails, I am still the mom, and I hold veto power. Over the years we have built up respect and trust and communication, and in this last year, I have had to make some hard decisions about things they were doing or wanted to do that the kids didn’t like. But I explained why, and we talked, and in the end, they didn’t like it, but they honored them. They need someone who is able to make the hard decisions so they don’t have to. No, you can’t go to the sale barn on a Saturday night where there will be pot and beer. I trust you not to use it, but you don’t need to be in that environment. No, you can’t go with that friend who just got his license on a three hour road trip. No, that isn’t appropriate viewing material. My job is still, when it is extreme, to make the hard decisions, the bad ones, the ones that they shouldn’t have to shoulder just yet. However even though I don’t turn them loose to chaos and anarchy because they are now in high school, it is my job to release a little more of that authority every year, so that they can see where they are gaining autonomy as they grow in responsibility and are able, as adults to shoulder the complete load on their own.
I figure it like this. I give them the foundation of love, of family, of home. I want my kids to know completely that they are a part of a family, they are loved as they are, that they belong somewhere. Family cannot and should not replace friends and interaction with the outside world, but I want them to have a place they can come home to and heal and rest and regenerate before they go back out into the world. They are given the vehicle of choices paired with responsibility for the outcome of those choices. They don’t have to sneak or take stupid risks to prove that they are capable of making choices. They are able to act independently, and responsibly. They are given the freedom to explore and succeed or fail. They can try on new experiences, and I will be there if they fall. They are given the ability to lead lives of their own, and I am interested in those, instead of keeping them in my world. I will branch out and be supportive and interested in the people they are. And I will take the brunt of the hard parts, because I am MOM, and that's just what we do.
I was glad my son was assigned this topic to write on. It made me think a bit, and be more concrete about the plan to get these boys raised. I hope someday we can look back at these teenage years, and think we did a pretty good job of raising and training up each other!