On Parenting Teens

A question from Anne: “It’s funny that you opened it up for writing suggestions because I was just thinking yesterday, “I’m going to ask Jennie to write about talking with teens.” I know you’ve certainly mentioned it before, and it seems like one of the most important duties parents nowadays have: addressing all the real-world mess that the kids are going to face as soon as they get that first job or what have you. I’m wondering specifically about the when. When do we stop rather purposely protecting all these little minds and their innocence from the mess and start having real conversations about it all. Do we just wait until they do go out and get their first job and just be ready to respond or did you take a more proactive approach? We have already started encountering evil in books and stories of course and that is certainly a good way to get talking about things, but for my crew (oldest being 8) I think in their minds they still very much keep all the bad separated to books , not this world stuff.”

This is a rather big and complicated question, and we have to begin, first, with our philosophy as parents. No decisions, even from the time of infancy, should be made without considering what your goal is in raising these children. The most important thing is that they be fit for Heaven, and then you can fill in your priorities from there. As they grow and their individual gifts, aptitudes, and quirks begin to make themselves apparent, you will tailor your parenting to each specific child. By their teenage years, if you’ve both been paying attention, they will very likely have ideas about which direction they’d like to move in as adults, and you can be helping them to work toward achieving those goals.

All of this, you may notice, sets you, the parent, in the role of trusted advisor. You have always had their best interests at heart, and they can see that, because you have a habit of looking at each child as an individual. Their dreams are your dreams, and though your family will share a common set of values, you have embraced their uniqueness, and they appreciate that.

I want to stop here for a moment and talk about that common set of values, and I’m going to tell you that, without a doubt, our Catholic faith makes it easier to raise our children. Children have a highly developed sense of justice, and they do not tolerate any hypocrisy. Thankfully, Holy Mother Church has laid out for us a theology and code of morality that embraces the entirety of our humanity. It is a law which comes from God, which is outside of ourselves, and which we are all accountable to. When children and parents are together striving toward the same goal, when the reasons for proper behavior are not parental whim, older children are a lot less likely to chaff against your authority.

Which brings me to another point: As Catholic families, we are all of us striving for Heaven, for sainthood. We, as parents, are hopefully further along in our journey than our children, and it is our job to guide them along the right path and to keep our eyes firmly fixed on our destination, but we, too, are sinners, and we will make mistakes. It’s a beautiful thing to humble yourself enough to admit your failings to your children. If you’ve wronged them, apologize, just as you’d expect them to. They will respect you and love you all the more for it.

But what you want to know is when you should start dealing with the difficult questions and the ugliness of the world. And I tell you that if you are paying attention to your children, if you have a habit of noticing and admiring and cherishing the little things about them, you will know.

It’s been my experience that they change rather abruptly from child to woman or man. It happens sometime around twelve years old, give or take a year. You’ll notice a sudden shift in their thinking, that they are no longer bored by adult conversation, and that they start asking questions that require deeper answers. You’ll also notice – hopefully – a sudden interest in work. They may show up unexpectedly to help, or just be more diligent in their own chores, or maybe even take the initiative.

You will know, if you’ve been watching them, that the time for treating them like children is over. Now it is time to train them in adult ways and adult responsibilities. This is when you become their trusted advisor more than their disciplinarian. They don’t need you anymore to help them rein in their own wills. They need you to teach them how to live as Catholic Christians in the world.

You’ll be able to anticipate a lot of the temptations they’re going to face; arm them in advance with the words and actions they can use to resist.  And let them know that you love them, always and no matter what.  Remind them frequently that there is nothing they can do to make you stop loving them, that mistakes will be made, and you’ll all just pick up the pieces and move on together.  You’ve got their backs.  You won’t abandon them.  They can’t disappoint you.

This part I’m adding at the request of my teenagers, who have appreciated these particular policies.  First, I’m not a stickler for my own rules.  If I say no, and they believe my reasons are in error, they are free to argue their case, and I will reconsider based on their input.  Sometimes, I stand by my original decision, and they can respect that, but just as often, I can see that they have valid points and that they can effectively manage my concerns, and I will change my decision in their favor.  They also like that I have standards for their appearance, but that there is flexibility within those standards.  The girls have a single piercing in their ears, and I could maybe stand a second, but no body piercings or visible tattoos.  Hair is fair game for any experimentation they like, in color or style; it’s always temporary.  Clothing must not show any part of their breasts, midriffs, or derrieres, but style is otherwise a matter of personal taste.

Both of these things show a mutual respect, mine for their individuality and ability to make sound decisions, and theirs for my wisdom and ability to take a long view on their behalf.

They’re going to put you through your paces, those teenaged children.  You’ll look back fondly on that time that seemed so overwhelming, when all your children were toddlers and preschoolers.  But you will be ready for the challenge when it arrives.  And your reward will be the friendship of some of the best people you could ever want to know.

Oh, and one last thing.  Don’t wait for your girls to reach physical maturity before you talk to them about their fertility. She shouldn’t be taken by surprise when that comes upon her! My girls all started around 12, but don’t take that as a rule. I’ve known girls as young as eight having their periods, but I suspect that is related to poor diets, heavy in soy products. Talk to her by eleven at the latest.

4 Comment

  1. Thanks, Jennie, for such a thoughtful response! In fact, your response helped me to realize why I asked the question in the first place. It seems that my oldest two, but especially the very oldest, are not really developing the same as most average kids. Charles has only just turned 8, but he has been genuinely interested in adult conversations pretty much since he could effectively use words to communicate. He will hang out with the adults in a group and seek to be an active part of the conversation. He’s always enjoyed helping out too. I guess that’s kind of why I struggle with knowing how much to share when. They are both asking questions all the time, and sometimes about big stuff. I never want to lie to them, even if I think they’re too young for the subjects they’re asking about, so far I give brief, simple, honest answers and steer the topic back to something more age-appropriate.

    Thanks for the encouragement!!

    1. This I understand. I never lie to the children, either, so sometimes, my honest answer is, “I don’t want to tell you just now, but we can talk about when you’re a little older.” They can respect that, too!

  2. beautiful! I have loved raising my oldest…she is 19 now and just lovely. Not that it has never been hard! But definitely awesome. Good teenagers are awesome to see. 🙂 We have the same sorts of rules about clothes and things, and she has always had…interesting taste, especially when she was younger…some of the outfits, oy. lol But as long as she was modest and reasonably appropriate to the occasion…I let her wear what she liked. 🙂

    1. wanted to add, being involved in our parish has given my homeschooled kids plenty of exposure to “real life” issues to have lots of conversations before they had to face things in their own personal world. They meet public school kids there, and it is from there that they bring home questions about things like suicide, drugs, and all manner of sexual issues…

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