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Styles of Parenting: The Puberty Moment and Beyond

 Parents seem always to be surprised when their kids begin to rebel in earnest during the puberty event which, for some, can seem to take forever. The offspring who were the most agreeable till age 12 can quietly turn off their obeisance and good humor, locking their bedroom doors or responding with one-syllable answers at the rare sit-down meal that so recently served as a forum for their carefree humor and daily autobiographical updates.
Adults sharing this phase of their kid's life are often at a challenging stage of their own: pushing 40, perhaps, or these days even older, where assumptions about their careers and deserved self-satisfaction have been neutralized by grinding reality. So, what impartial observer would be surprised that parents and children are at cross purposes at times like these? In the hoped-for norm, the mutual dependency keeps basic interaction functional until a few tough years pass and the kid introduces herself as an adult to her newly rediscovered, similarly disposed, mentors and friends known as Mom and Dad.
And, of course, the template above is subject to the massive uncertainties faced by children in today's America, where fully half live in one-parent households and get limited, skewed interaction with the non-resident parent, if at all. Grandparents, in many circumstances, then, can play the roles we ascribe nominally to parents. But the transition from happy child through brooding teen, on to functional young adult is still biologically and socially mandated for most of us.
The greatest vaccine against the painful transition near puberty is, I believe, the constant availability of, motivation and recognition by at least one strong parent throughout the elementary and middle school years. The attentive parenting regimen seems often to suffer from the time the kid starts to lose his teeth and go to school. It is no wonder, then, that children drift and seem gone away in many aspects by the time puberty arrives.
  Equally common and troubling, in our current world of later-age parenting and single-parent homes, is the phenomenon of invasive, almost "BFF" (Best Friends Forever, in case you missed it) relationships. In these homes, the involvement of one or two parents in the life of the child crosses into an inappropriate intimacy which presupposes that the parent-child relationship allows for no privacy, no happy secrets and no undisclosed longings. This model has been enabled further by the actual danger of unbridled interaction through social media now available to the unmonitored teen. The urge to be accepted by persons other than family can be overpowering for a pre-adult human, and good parents keep aware and wary of this threat. The over-monitored teen is vulnerable as well because they may seek some private life separate from a smothering home life.
  Once this media risk/safety regimen is in place and being enforced, however, parents are best when they invite the adult-in-the-making, who is their child, into the world of adult thought, responsibility and expression of talent. This cannot be done if Mom still uses baby talk and pet names while overstating the specialness of her offspring. When Dad overlooks errors in judgement and fails to engage because he feels awkward or overly sympathetic, teaching opportunities and adult lessons are squandered. These are the types of openings and cries for help for which parents should be prepared and to which they should respond immediately.
  Where we should not automatically go, however, is into the aspects of adult privacy and self-management that a young mind and soul must develop from within. It is our right and responsibility to observe our children's lives and crawl in when necessary or when invited; it is not, however, good for us, or for our lifelong relationship with our offspring, to remain their only confidant, their dependency enabler or their best friend. We want them to make it on their own and feel strong enough to leave us at 18. 
There, I said it. When they are adults, out of high school, they should be anxious to remove the parental leash, and should own the encouragement they've been given to walk away freely. 
This brings us to what parenting really is: preparing our own flesh and blood and adopted loved ones for the exhilarating steps away from the shelter we have provided. If we have instilled the certainty that we are always here to witness, encourage and facilitate strength, our kids will assume adulthood is theirs for the taking. They have learned by experience that we are consistent and as strong as they need us to be. When we help them move into the dorm or to their first apartment when the main job is secured, we can hug, shake hands and let them go. 
  The trouble comes when we hug, shake hands and ask them to text every morning or to call us for anything at all that they might need, then proceed to call them and ask nosey questions and even drop in, unannounced. Maybe they whine about something in the dorm and we call the Director of Housing, instead of advising them to handle it themselves; maybe we show up at their place of work, commenting later about the boss or the crummy building he's in. We hear the beginning of a gossip story over the phone and laugh at their words when they say unkind things about others, the way a best friend might, instead of taking up for decency by pointing out that this is a bad habit (something that we should have established years earlier, of course.) By playing along and, glomming onto their next steps, we are keeping them too young. This might partially explain why a majority of young adults intend to keep themselves marriage-and-chid-free well into their 30s: It's too early to give up the status of the child of special place, who expects adoring, rather than confidence-instilling parents. Other factors are at play here, of course, when it comes to delaying adulthood in today's America. High divorce and low marriage rates over the last half century have driven down any assumption that making a family is essential and guarantees one a rewarding life. But among children of over-indulgent parents, the missing motivation to achieve independence creates a lingering immaturity which is often fed by the community into which the young adults are first launched, whether to higher education or into the workforce. 
  Since humans have gained a few years on life expectancy over the last century, largely due to effective disease prevention and treatment, it can be easy to assume that waiting later to be grown up is just fine. Having parents old enough to be your grandparents, however, can deprive a person of the capacity to confront uncertainty and fear. It can make one surrender and go home to Mommy and Daddy, a result that pleases the old folks who are selfish enough to allow dependency in their heirs, just so they can have their baby in the house. 
  So, how does a good parent avoid the temptation and the laziness that leads to late maturity in young adults? There are many methods, to be sure, some of which work well for just a few and others which are universal. Here is a draft list, bound to come across as insufficient as well as somewhat condescending, coming from someone like me, whose grown kids are fine and deserve to take full credit on their own. But I was there and they still expect my notice and my respect, making me feel still involved in their effort and their joy.
--Engage physically from the beginning, holding, rocking, singing when they are newborn, then reading with them multiple times a day by the time they are six months old.
--Play games that are both fun and challenging, whether they are improvised on the spot or conventional, prefabricated fun. Be there.
--Ask questions that require some thought for an answer, and listen to the reply. Encourage them to elaborate, and then discuss their answers respectfully. If they are saying something ridiculous, it is our job to reason with them and bring them along to rational expression. 
--Never denigrate their opinions or dismiss their thoughts by laughing at them (when they're being serious), berating, or ignoring them. Use every opportunity to teach reasonable discussion by example.
--Never tolerate a disrespectful tone, and never use such a tone in front of them, whether talking with them, their other parent, visiting family or friends. The urge to speak thusly is just beneath the surface for each of us, and the example we set is our only power to pass along attitudinal decency.
--Deal with behavioral issues immediately by engaging them, looking them in the eye and quickly making clear what was wrong. Putting off punishment and prolonging the period of discipline is lazy and self-serving. Time-outs are overused when they are the constant first response. This should be saved for big breaking of rules, not for everyday correction. Being grounded for extended periods teaches little when overused as well, and the enforcement requires strict agreement and enforcement by both parents. This unity is rare between parents, and the impact is reduced as a result. Sit the child down. Look her in the eye. Say what you mean in just a few sentences. Your power derives from your consistency, your attention and the fact that you are the big person in their lives.
--Never make yourself convince a child that you are right in a disciplinary incident. You are right because you are in charge, and this is their ultimate source of security. If you drag out the discussion and sound like a weak person begging for cooperation, the child makes subliminal note that its easy to get around you. If you are fair and consistent, their patterns will eventually mirror yours, with some room for stylistic differences. 
        --Always pay attention to their work, their achievements and their improvement. Say words of recognition and careful pride, avoiding any lavishing of over-the-top praise. There are still many miles to go before they are complete adults. Smart parents also realize that they, themselves, are still evolving and in need of improvement through self-evaluation.
        --Because we, as parents and as humans, will fail from time to time, we must also instill in our heirs an ability to admit when we are wrong. This is the most important measure of true maturity, and our kids can only learn it from us. If they are forced by our behavior to learn from other influences in their lives, we will have missed a key component of welcoming them to adulthood.  This sad result is a fact of life for far too many of us, and the negative behavior is far too easy to pass along to the next generation. 


Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 02:26PM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment

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