By Rachel Pieh Jones
I recently reclined in a hammock with my fourteen-year old son and daughter. They were in a goofy, talkative mood and I asked them what advice they would like to give to their parents about raising teenagers. First my son said, “Give us $1,000 a day, every day of the year,” to which I responded, “As soon as you find a job that pays $30,000 a month and you give me your entire salary, that’s not gonna happen.” Then they decided to offer more serious suggestions. Their answers intrigued me and I realized that, on this early end of raising teenagers, I have a lot to learn. So I asked other teenagers.
What advice do teenagers have for their parents?
Here are a few insightful highlights from the responses to my highly unscientific non-rigorous, inquiry.
1. Don’t pester us with annoying questions like, “What are you thinking?” or “What’s wrong?” I’ll tell you if and when I want to.
2. Don’t forget to have ‘the’ talk, especially with the youngest. Sure, sure, we’ll probably learn things from friends and television but still, talk about it.
3. Stay up late. We want to start important conversations after you want to be in bed. After midnight you might be able to ask those annoying questions and actually receive an answer.
4. Don’t think you can read my mind. This might seem in contrast to the ‘don’t ask annoying questions’ suggestions. But still, you can’t read it. Try to think of a creative way to find out what, if anything, is going on in there.
5. Don’t think you can read my facial expressions. Sometimes you are way off in interpreting my mood. Don’t name it if you don’t know it. I might look discouraged or crabby but I’m really just trying to ignore the unicorn horn sized zit on my forehead and am feeling pretty darn good otherwise.
6. Give us more freedom and let us take more risks. We need to learn how to fail and how to come back from it. We need to learn our own boundaries and we need to learn new things, new skills, challenge our fears.
7. Don’t come running when things go wrong, at least not immediately. Let us learn from our mistakes.
8. Don’t force us into the career you want. Let us follow our own dreams.
9. Limit our screen time. I worry about our generation, that we won’t be capable of healthy social interactions with actual people. We’ll probably fight you, but do it anyway.
I know there are thousands of other things teenagers would love to tell their parents, some suggestions more worth adopting than others. Some as trivial as ‘please buy new jeans because the ones you love give you mom-butt and that is so embarassing’ or as ludicrous as ‘give us $1,000 a day,’ but I found it especially telling that ‘give us more freedom’ came up most often. I pressed the kids who said this, trying to understand it better. They meant more freedom to make choices and to experience the consequences, for better and for worse. They were willing to face those consequences and they were even willing to seek out their parents’ advice in facing those consequences, at least hypothetically.
This is hard to hear and even harder to do. As the teens shared suggestions, sometimes their parents were in the vicinity. As soon as the parents started to push back on the advice, to question it, to say things like, “We’ve been there, we learned some things, and we know best,” the teens shut down. Their shoulders drooped, their eyes dulled, they disengaged from what had been a fascinating conversation. Some physically backed away or left the room.
My primary take-away from this informal survey is the need to listen with sincere interest, to take my teenagers and their ideas seriously. My aim as a parent of teenagers isn’t to merely survive the raging hormones or to make it out the other end still talking to each other. It is to develop engaged, curious, brave, competent, contributing members of society. I’ve never raised teenagers before, they’ve never been teenagers before. We’re in this together. To do the best I possibly can just might require taking them up on some of their suggestions.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.