Micro-Managing or Lessons in Life?

For those who have followed Cheeky Kids for a while now will recall that, at times, I share my own parenting experiences as I journey through parenthood, minus a manual, script or even direction signage. While in recent posts I have been concerned with the current education reforms in New Zealand, and to be perfectly selfish, the inevitable impact on my own children, I wanted to return to my roots in this post reflecting on my current parenting experiences. In particular, my experience in having a 15 year old son……

One of the hardest teenage phenomena to keep ahead of is the influence of peers in the way your teenager behaves and operates. To have some influence in this, we decided long ago that our son would not visit, or sleep over at another young person’s place before we had met them, and they had been at our place. We have kept with this as our son has moved into his teenage years. So this weekend we had the experience of having one such friend stay-over, with eye-opening results.

To have another young person in our house who has never been taught that you say please and thank you, that you look at someone when they talk to you, that you don’t try to operate a laptop and headphones at the dinner table while eating, and that you, at the very least, say thank you for staying over at the point of being returned home. That you actually communicate with those around you, at a very minimum. Don’t get me wrong…..I don’t expect this kid to divulge his life story or future ambition…..but for this young person to be so socially disadvantaged when in another persons house had me quite concerned.

Concerned for my own son……thinking that he held this other boy in such high regard. But I was swiftly reassured that our son, too, was concerned with his friends behaviour. We had not even reversed down the boy’s driveway after dropping him off before I was asked (with nervous glance) ‘so what did you think of …..?’ Our son knew. I didn’t have to do any ‘teaching’ of difference…..I merely had to remind what our expectations were if he were visiting another persons’ home…..or even just talking to another human being…..and the lesson was done. By the time we reached home, my son was planning to contact the friends we suggested may be ones more appropriate to see in future.

We do realise that this could have gone differently. That our son could not have seen the inappropriateness of his friends behaviour, and that we would have had to prepare to monitor his friendship with this kid for a longer period of time. That we would have had to carefully mitigate any damage done with their interaction. It is a hard job as a parent to have any influence over a 15 year old. And as every year comes round that influence becomes less and less. So what underlies a parents influence as they mature? What lives in them, as you, their parent, become less influential in their decision-making and social interactions?

The answer came to me when I stumbled across a recent TED talk on the evening following this experience. Jennifer Senior presented at TED recently about the modern day phenomenon in parenting that is anxiety. Anxiety that we are doing it right, doing it wrong, not providing this and that for our children. But ultimately, our biggest anxiety that our children, heaven forbid, will not be happy. Because isn’t that our job, as parents, to have happy children? As a result of this never-ending quest for children’s happiness, we become lost in the search for what will work, what won’t….what is right and what isn’t. We view each situation as a potential risk or reinforcement to our child’s happiness. And in doing so, we often lose sight of the person we are guiding our child to become. Many parents understand that education is the key to our child’s future happiness…..so we work hard to support them in their learning, monitoring homework, attending appropriate meetings at school, ensuring our teen is doing their study to pass their exams etc. But that is not enough. We then worry about what other skills they may need in life, so children get signed up for after-school activities, such as rugby, ballet, piano and so on. We worry about children’s diet, (what to do if my child eats non-organic, or doesn’t eat their vegetables); about children’s health, about children’s social skills, the list goes on. The point is we worry. We micro manage, instead of keeping an eye on the big picture. All of these worries are valid….but perhaps are indicative of anxiety gone too far. For now, we are told by every parenting ‘expert’ out there what good parents do and don’t do. As Jennifer Senior suggests, there is a book for everything to teach our toddler, short of disarming a nuclear bomb.

What did my experience with my teen’s peer reinforce to me? That my child’s happiness is not dependent on whether we continue to allow him to be friends with another boy with such vastly different social skills to our son. We could be so focused on his happiness that we allow him to liaise with this peer without regard for what he may learn in the process. My child’s happiness is more guided when we return to the basics of parenting. It is by focusing on the good old fashioned stuff that has worked for centuries in parenting. Values of life. What is really important. That you treat others with respect and that you will be respected in return. That respect means saying please and thank you, it means looking at someone when they talk to you, it means being respectful of another persons home when in it, and ultimately it means respecting your friend by respecting their home and family. That that is the value of friendship.

Values are even more important than our child’s happiness. For if we, as parents, can impart values that will serve our children’s future, then surely this will ultimately lead to their own, intrinsic happiness….rather than relying on others for some external sense of satisfaction? And really, if we, as parents are so focused on our children’s happiness, then it is the way of values that will ensure our own happiness in a job well done.

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Parent Power

My 14 year old becomes 15 in less than a week. This is somewhat of a horrifying thought, as it only reminds us of how little time we have left with him to guide, teach and advise him on the ways of being a responsible adult. So when life lessons arise, we work hard to ensure every moment is utilised, as he inches one step closer to adult responsibility.

What makes this difficult however are the parents of his teenage friends. For some reason, many parents feel that as their children become young adults, they can loosen up and shift roles……becoming more friend than parent. That they don’t need to worry about consistent boundaries or maintaining the role of ‘guide to life’ and ‘wisdom council’. Instead they try to become a cool parent, for fear that their child will turn away, angry, mad or embarrassed to be in the same room as them. And in adopting this approach to their teenager, they then have to assume the same role with their child’s friends – because it is the friends that influence the final seal of ‘approval’ from their child. If their friends hassle their child “Man your olds are stink” or “oh my god is that what your Dad said….” their popularity ratings decline and the likelihood of your child ‘liking you’ decreases.

Which is what raising a teenager is about right? Them ‘liking’ you? Not in our household. We have decided not to look at the micro steps our teenager will take from age 13-20 years. We have our sights firmly focused on the young man he will be at age 25. The strength of character, moral compass and set of values that he will have to give him the resiliency to move through the adult world successfully. Which then allows us to make parenting decisions that will (and there’s always the fingers-crossed clause) assist him to get to this point. Our latest goal is to have him understand money does not descend from the heavens at any given time. That if he wants money for his mobile phone, or movie tickets, or lollies or the latest clothes, he has to do like everyone else and work for the money. We began this process early in the year by suggesting that if he wanted a fun, exciting summer holiday he would need to begin the process of looking for a job. Easier said than done in today’s employment climate. Lessons are continuing to being learned around gaining wilful employment. We have provided him with many opportunities to earn money doing labour around our property. We pay well and are somewhat flexible employers. However we stick to our bottom line, if the job isn’t completed to our satisfaction, you don’t get paid.

So when our teenager negotiates his taxi fare (aka Mums car) out to a friends beach house for an invited stay, we agreed to his terms. Lawns were to be mowed and bedroom was to be spotless. An employment contract was entered into. But when the time came for us to keep to our end of the deal, we had no option but to decline the taxi ride. Lawns had been left too late in the day and with the rain arriving could not be completed. The bedroom had not been cleaned. Instead, he had chosen to watch movies ‘putting off’ the jobs till the last moment. This is a current theme of life presently…..putting off for another time. And yet the look of shock and disdain that came when he was informed the taxi ride was not happening still surprised me. He genuinely thought that he could continue the approach and ‘finish it later’ as he had a deal with his mate to head to the beach. We had no choice but to stick to our guns and decline him his ride. We compromised and advised him that if we saw a change in his attitude and the jobs were completed by the following lunchtime, he had one last chance at the taxi ride. But he had to pull finger and show a change in his focus.

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But this is where it gets tricky. I then had to advise the mother of the said friend at the beach. I was simply delivering the message that, providing the jobs were completed, my teenager would be arriving later than expected for the visit. I explained we were trying to grow a responsible work ethic and the value of integrity……something which was lost in translation as she conveyed to me that her son would be ‘guttered’. I had to continue to apologise for the inconvenience and reinforce what we were trying to teach our son. At no time did I receive a ‘good on you’, or ‘I understand completely’, or ‘absolutely, you do what you need to do, we can wait’. Instead it became about how she was going to keep her disappointed son happy for an additional half-day.

Where has Parent Power gone? What has happened to parents having each others’ backs? This is a tough gig. There is no rule book, no user manual. We are required to make calls in split seconds with minimal information, that can influence the character and integrity of our future adults. We need to support each other, rather than the fragmented, each-to-their-own approach that is so common these days. What concerns me is that as my son moves towards the teenage experiences of driving, parties, girls and alcohol who are the parents of his friends that I can trust will have my, and consequently, his back? Who will be the parents that will ring and say ‘hey have just heard our boys planning ….. we need to address this with them’? Sadly, I can’t count too many of them on one hand.

Parents need to be a team – they need to be that collective village that raises our children together. And it begins with knowing that you can’t be your teenager’s friend. As the parent it is your job to make the hard calls when they don’t have the developmental, emotional or moral ability to. They may be bigger than you (my son now towers over me), but they haven’t got the years behind them to allow them to make decisions that may be life-impacting. So being their friend isn’t the reality as the parent of a teenager. Being their advisor, chief of staff and moral compass is. Friendship comes when they have matured into the wonderful adults you worked so hard to create in their formative years.

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Teenagers Online: How to Manage Social Media Invasions

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Our household would be fairly reflective of a middle-income modern family today when it comes to the amount of technology available to us. We have two TVs, mobile phones for Mum, Dad and teenager and business owned laptop and iPads. On top of this my teenager was recently gifted his own laptop, for the primary purpose of completing school assignments. We are very proactive about how technology is used and monitored in our household, as we like to consider we are fairly ‘modern’ and tech-savvy parents. We have basic rules. No TVs in bedrooms. If laptops or iPads are being used, they are used in the communal areas of our house for all to see. Time spent on the technology is limited, and the devices are certainly not activated in brilliant and wonderfully sunny days! We are attempting to teach our children (including our very quick 4 year old who knows how to ‘swipe’) that technology is merely a tool and not the complete way of life. That technology does not replace the basics of good old face to face social interaction. And that talking, laughing and appreciating each other in our family is more important than eyes glued to a screen.

Our biggest amount of work, as many parents can appreciate, is the way in which we monitor and manage our teenagers use of social media sites. Of course our younger children do not have an awareness (yet) of Facebook, Twitter, tumblr and other such sites. But it seems every week our nearly-15 year old is wanting to access the myriad of applications on his smart phone that allow him to have more and more ‘cyber-friends’. So our concerns around who he is socialising with, what he is being exposed to, and how to keep him safe at a time of his life when he is particularly impressionable are compounded with the inclusion of such social media sites.

The first thing we decided as a parenting team is that there is no such thing as our son’s right to privacy online. We agreed to him having a Facebook page, on the provision that we knew his password and that all his notifications came to our email address. If he didn’t like it, he didn’t have the page. He knows that at anytime we can intercept messages and read things on his page (we are his Facebook friends too). We could have simply denied him Facebook, but with the proviso of having access to the page, we felt we would be in the best position to walk alongside him and support him in understanding online-etiquette. Some would argue this is an invasion of his privacy. We rationalised that if he was prepared to put things online, then they were not subject to privacy. We were not sneaking into his bedroom and reading through a diary hidden away for only his eyes. He was sharing things on a public forum, and as his parents we had a responsibility to ensure what he was sharing was appropriate and safe.

By having access to our sons facebook password, we were then in a position to work with him to adjust his privacy settings. This is where as a parent talking with our teen was imperative. Many parents not experienced with social media sites plead ignorance and therefore abdicate responsibility. Instead we decided Facebook was here to stay (until the next big thing) and it was our responsibility to teach our son about the audience he was prepared to share his daily life with, as well as the potential dangers for him in doing just that. We continue to have many discussions around who sees what is on his page and the long term footprint he is leaving in cyber space. What seems to work at the present time is utilising his interest in girls. We ask him to consider the possibility that one day his future father-in-law may want to see who his daughter may be preparing to spend the rest of her life with! Or the very real notion that a review of his profile page may be the deciding factor determining his employability with a future employer.

It is our responsibility as the parents of a teenager to firstly accept the invasion of social media into the daily lives of our children. Given this technology is here, we cannot assume our children know how to behave appropriately using this form of communication. So what do we do for our children if they don’t have the skills to behave in a new social context? We teach them. We talk to them, assisting them to make connections between our family values, expected behaviours and how to use the social media in a responsible manner. And then we monitor their online behaviour, with their full knowledge. Because being a teenager, he falls down lots. He makes bad judgments and struggles to see past the present day to any future consequences of such choices. So we assist him to see these, keeping his behaviour in context and viewing it as yet another learning opportunity on the path of life.

They say parenting is one of the hardest jobs a person could ever undertake. And I’m pretty sure this was said pre-social media. Now, it’s just got a whole lot more complicated!

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