Recently a friend of mine posted on Facebook about the treasure that her teenager is. She was not being ironic but utterly serious. I could have hugged her. Her words were a refreshing contrast to the common wisdom that getting one’s children through the teenage years is on a par with visiting one of Dante’s innermost circles of hell.
It was even more encouraging to see quite a few likes and affirming comments on my friend’s post. It seems not everybody out there thinks their teens are gurgling cauldrons of pent-up existential rage and seething hormones.
Parenting is an art, not a science, so it’s not surprising that those of us who are trying to do it turn to each other for ideas, support, and commiseration. But over the years I have sometimes been dismayed at the way some of my fellow parents talk about their kids. I have done it, too. A thirteenth birthday announcement is met with sympathetic groans, knowing looks, and warnings about the tempestuous years to come. Certain types of misbehavior are not addressed but accepted as part and parcel of whatever age the offending child is.
We teach our children not to stereotype others, yet too often that’s exactly what we do to them, resigning ourselves to terrible twos and stormy adolescences and everything in between. This not only sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy but does both our children and us a disservice.
Remember Constructive Criticism?
One of the great things about social media—the increased ability of people to discuss just about anything—is also one of its pitfalls. Parents naturally tend to talk with one another about parenting. That’s fine, as long as we are doing so constructively.
Are we approaching the conversation in good faith, not painting our kids as monsters and jerks we have no choice except to endure, but seeking ways to better understand and parent them? Or are we putting their personal lives on display on social media as we make their struggles less about them and more about us?
More than once I have cringed upon seeing a mom take to Facebook to publicize a child’s misbehavior. It’s one thing to bemoan one’s lack of sleep with a new infant or the frustration of trying to potty-train a two-year-old; it’s quite another to rant about the preteen who has been telling lies or the 16-year-old who broke curfew. Worse is the parent who follows the rant with a smug statement about the discipline she administered to the offending delinquent. Such posts may be momentarily satisfying, but in the end, who is served by them? The child or the parent?
Love Protects Others’ Reputations
The Eighth Commandment instructs us to not bear false witness against our neighbor; according to Martin Luther this means, in part, protecting our neighbor’s reputation. Whether or not you take the Ten Commandments as divine instruction, they are good moral guidance. We should protect our neighbor’s reputation in the way we would like him to protect ours, and who are our children if not some of our closest, most vulnerable neighbors?
The trend of parents publicly testing and shaming children on social media hardly serves the goal of protecting their reputation and is ultimately a type of objectification that uses the child for other purposes. We don’t like it when others see us as objects rather than individuals; why would we expect our children to feel any different?
I learned this lesson firsthand some months ago. Now, I have never been one to speak negatively to others of my family, either on social media or in real life. Some have even said my custom of celebrating and building my family up is annoying. Yes, I’m that person (sorry).
But last year I shared a video that I had taken of my preteen during a church choir practice. Poor kid, his dad is the director and I am the accompanist, so he can’t get away with much. The video, which I shared for reasons having nothing to do with him, captured a moment at which his behavior left a bit to be desired.
I shared the video anyway and made a joking comment about the troublemaker in the first row. My intent was to enjoy a moment of solidarity with my fellow parents, but unfortunately my son happened to look over my shoulder and see that his less-than-stellar behavior had been recorded and shared on Facebook. He was quite unhappy, and rightly so. Having repented of his misbehavior and been forgiven, he felt somewhat slapped in the face at having it put on display. I apologized, profusely, and took the video down.
Repeat: Kids Are Not Computers
A few years ago it seemed that every time I turned on the radio I heard an ad for a discipline program that promised to turn the difficult child into an angel overnight, or your money back! I can understand the appeal of such a promise, especially when one is contending with an extremely challenging situation. Maybe that program had some success stories (although I have to wonder how many, since I’m not hearing it advertised anymore).
But I question any parenting approach that suggests children are little computers that simply require the proper programming to get them humming along bug-free. This is not to suggest time and testing haven’t proven some parenting strategies effective; we deceive ourselves, though, if we fall into thinking any one formula will work for all children.
Guess what? Before our children were children, they were human beings: unique individuals who will retain their unique identity through all the stages of their lives. A huge part of successful parenting is getting to know—and learning to unconditionally love—those individuals, no matter what stage of life they are in or what particular idiosyncrasies they might have.
News flash: not all preteen boys are rowdy, rough-and-tumble sorts who like to jump in mud puddles and play with bugs. Not all preteen females are girly girls who like to have tea parties and play with dolls. (Ask me how I know.) Assuming that teenage boys have only one thing on their minds, that teenage girls will spend several years screaming at their mothers, and that teenagers in general will go through a period of rebellion are all stereotypes that are ultimately disrespectful to the people in question.
To Teach Respect, Model It
In addition to protecting our children (and their reputations), one of our most important roles as parents is to teach them how to treat others with respect. One of the best ways to do that is to treat them with respect, thereby showing how it’s done. When we dismiss their thoughts and feelings as being simply a function of their age or sex, we disrespect them. Yes, human beings develop physically, mentally, and emotionally according to certain predictable patterns; we are not, however, captive to those patterns, and we are so, so much more than them.
A few months ago I was talking to my 20-year-old daughter* about things like growing up, parenting, and, oh, life. It’s a conversation we have regularly. On that day she gave me one of the best gifts anyone has ever given me. As I shared with her some of my thoughts about what I did as a parent, both wrong and right, she said, “One of the things I have always appreciated is how you and dad always take us seriously.”
I had never thought of it that way, but now as I reflect on almost 24 years of parenting, I think my daughter is on to something. If taking your children seriously means trying to figure out what makes them tick rather than expecting to wind them up and have them tick according to the description on the box, I hope I have done that. Perhaps I have sometimes taken them too seriously. If so, I’m fine with it. On this scale, I would rather err on the side of too much than not enough.
Shall we deliver a cliche? Why not? Kids are people, too, each one as varied and unique as every other member of the human race. Let’s treat them as such, and be pleasantly surprised at how they rise to the challenge.
*Thanks to my daughter Caitlin for her invaluable input into this article.