Overview: A short essay on parenting, setting limits and minding authority.
Ever see what happens when you walk a yearling colt out of the barn and turn him loose in the corral? He takes off, running full-tilt and stops within mere inches of the fence line, turns, tail up and runs just as fast in the opposite direction until he stops again from crashing into the fence on the other side. Next, he’ll frequently turn again and run the length of the paddock, this time alongside the fence, arching and straining to see beyond what contains him. Then he circles around back to the center, settles down and knows he’s home.
Teenagers are like that sometimes, too.
Once, during a teen support group meeting, a new member to the group was saying that she had no visible or stated curfews, that she could come and go as she pleased, stating that she frequently came home from being out with friends at one or two o’clock in the morning. Mom, mom’s boyfriend and her younger siblings were were all asleep. She’d typically scoff down a wine cooler and go to bed herself.
One of the other teens in the group, wide-eyed and open mouthed, said, “I wish I lived in your house, that’d be so cool!”
“No you don’t!” said the girl telling her story. “I hate it. Nobody gives a shit whether or not I even come home. It’s kinda scary. I used to call home to tell my mom where I was headed next, but after awhile I figured out she didn’t care, so I quit calling. Now, nobody knows where I am except the friends I’m with.”
It has been my experience after thirty-five years of working with young people, that when a teenager has no boundaries, no limits set and can do anything that they want, that it, over time, manifests itself into an experience of loneliness and fear. Or put another way, children and teens thrive on stated boundaries and limit setting.
Show me a teen who has been raised by parents where the household culture allows for “anything goes,” “follow your bliss,” and be a “free spirit,” and more often than not that teen is insecure, scared and uncertain about who they are and where they want to go in life. And the parents I’m talking about here are good and appropriate adults in practically every other way, too. In fact they’re usually smart and well educated. When I ask these parents to tell me what is expected of their teenager in the home, what their curfew times are and what the household rules are, I get answers like, “Well, we’ve never had to discuss these things before,” or, “We’re raising our son to be independent and free-thinking.” Right.
Vice principals in any high school know what I’m talking about here. They see and deal with parents and teens like this all the time. One case in particular stands out:
A teacher instructed a student to remove his hat and hoodie covering his head while walking down the hall between classes. The student refused to comply, saying it was a stupid rule that had nothing to do with his education. So the teacher wrote him up, which landed him in the vice principal’s office. While there, he became argumentative and surly with the VP, resulting in a one day suspension.
The boys father called me to set up an appointment for his son, and during our conversation the dad tells me that he stands in total agreement with his son and he was contemplating taking this all the way to the school committee if necessary. When I tried to explain to dad that the school rule existed because teachers found it difficult to communicate with students when they couldn’t see their eyes and faces in class with hats and hoodies in place, he wasn’t buying it. When I brought up the related issue of rudeness to the teacher and the VP, the dad said, “My son was provoked. What else could he have done?”
For certain, questioning authority has its rightful place…at the right time and at the right place. But once we empower our teens to question authority, just where the right place and time is, frequently gets lost in the rush to take a stand. In the case above, the father’s supporting stand didn’t help his son one bit.
I agreed to see the boy but with the understanding that an apology was appropriate and that the school rule needed to be followed. I also encouraged the student to get on the committee that reviews the student handbook where the rules are listed, and for dad to query the school committee, in writing, about such rules. Neither suggestion was followed.
Just because your teen is staying out of trouble, getting decent grades and otherwise not being a problem to you at the moment, doesn’t mean that they’re all set and don’t need your guidance or limit-setting. Don’t be their friend and let them do whatever they please. Be their mom, their dad, pay attention and love them enough to say “I love you,” and “no, you can’t do that.”
As parents, our challenge is to be just that, parents to our children, and not their comrades, buddies or equals. When they have been wronged or treated unfairly, with clear evidence of such, the most lasting teachable moment to our children begins with how we react and respond. Authority structures have their place and the sooner our children learn this, and discover when and where to question authority in constructive ways, the smoother their life-journeys will be.