Nearly every parent knows that growing kids need unconditional love. And of course young children are powerless and innocent about most things, so they need our support for food, shelter, security, clothes, medical care, etc.
A big theme of my writing about parenting is that by the time children reach adolescence, they also need understanding and respect, which we adults can give them by using effective communication skills. A failure to do this inevitably results in rebellion and defiance – and worse.
Raising a teenager is all about the steady process of helping them prepare for the challenges of adult life. Because that’s where all the joy and tears are headed: they will ultimately leave home and try to make it on their own. We know that all too many young adults have trouble doing that, and they fly back to the nest. I’m sure this isn’t what you hope for.
So what else can you give your child – besides love, support, understanding and respect – that will help her or him be ready to move on the next phase of life?
Here are my Top Five…
A work ethic. The principle: don’t buy it for them, have them earn it. Don’t do it for them, let them figure it out and do the work themselves. Imagine what will happen to a university student or a new hire if the young person doesn’t know what it means to work hard. You got it. Failure. Support your teen’s efforts to make money. There are hundreds of examples on the web. Young people who have never had a job not only are lacking a key element on their resume, they have a gap in their experience, which they will have to overcome later. Give the gift of work.
Critical thinking. The school system should provide abundant opportunities for your child to learn to analyze situations and solve problems. But wait a minute, not so fast. Many teachers are under pressure to prepare kids for standardized tests by getting them to remember facts, not think about the how and why of facts. Too many school systems feel they need to raise these test scores to get more funding, so they make that a higher priority than preparing your child for life. So, Mom and Dad, it’s actually up to you. How do you help your child to become a robust critical thinker, which is profoundly important to success in life and work? The answer is actually simple. Encourage them to think for themselves. Don’t tell them what the problem is, ask questions to get them to think it through. Don’t tell them what the answer is. Don’t preach, lecture or give advice. Ask open-ended questions to get them to figure things out. If you want your child to end up with a fine mind, they have to wire their developing brains for critical thinking. To learn how to think, they have to do a lot of thinking. The window for developing this foundation closes when adolescence ends. So its on you to give them the gift of judgment.
The ability to imagine the future. Would it surprise you to know that few teems think about their future? Maybe not. They don’t think about preparing for adult life. They don’t think about leaving home. They don’t think about what next year will be like. They probably can’t even visualize the end of the semester. They think they’re immortal because dying is too far in the future for them to acknowledge its reality. The reason is that the part of the brain that connects the dots is still under development, a work in progress. Imagining future consequences is a skill they have to learn. And it doesn’t just happen. They have to wire their brains for this kind of thinking. I like to use visual images to help them see their present life from the perspective of a whole life, such as knots in a string to indicate the years of a long life, or a jar of marbles. Help them visualize what they want in the foreseeable future: a vacation trip, making the team in their favorite sport, having a car. Help them set a goal a create a plan for achieving it. Later, as adults, if they have trouble setting goals they won’t achieve them. An adult who can’t create a plan for achieving something probably won’t get it.
Strong self-esteem. Most of the trouble that teens get into happens because they’re vulnerable to peer pressure. They feel needy about having friends and they don’t want to risk being left out by standing their ground and refusing to get involved in high-risk behavior. The antidote to this vulnerability is strong self-esteem. Teens who have a strong sense of self and like who they are feel more comfortable about choosing the right friends. They are less likely to be desperate for friendship. You can do your part by affirming their strengths, encouraging them to get involved in activities, and acknowledging their achievements and worthy efforts. Don’t go overboard with praise, getting all gushy for every small thing they do. A teen can smell out false praise in a microsecond.
Wisdom. After puberty you’ll have about six years to pass on to your child the skills, experience, knowledge and wisdom you have to give. Have you ever had a friend who told you, “My grandfather used to say that…” Or, “My mom was always telling me…” It’s true that not everything you tell a child sticks. But if you do it in a loving, non-critical, non-preaching way, you’ll be surprised how much of it sticks. So be generous about sharing what you know. If you don’t, your child will go into adult life somewhat naive and will be behind the learning curve about life. I recommend you check out my Pinterest board, “Cool Stuff for Teens,” which has quite a bit of wisdom and other practical knowledge aimed at teens. I set it up to benefit young people; maybe your teen will find it interesting.