We all hope and pray that our children will grow up to be well adjusted polite, happy teenagers. But it takes a lot more than just hoping, Guest writer Michael Wray talks to Daisy and Zelda about how he achieved this with his own daughter.
Being asked to write an article on how to survive the teen years, I had to think. How did we do it? Some of it was luck, but not all of it. Toby’s teen years aren’t quite over yet, but we’re approaching the end of the 18th year and the signs are good. I don’t just love my daughter, I like her. Result!
With only one child, I have a sample size of one from which to draw conclusions. Scientifically speaking then, I am in no position of authority. I can say from first-hand experience at the other end of the relationship what doesn’t work, for me at least.
Looking back at both my own teen and parental experiences, my conclusion is this: if you wait until your child’s teenage years, it is probably too late. There is no magic flick of the switch that your child goes through to become a teenager. Society uses an arbitrarily devised number system that starts the teens at 13 and takes them through to 19. However, there is no metamorphosis that occurs at the age of 13 and reverses at 20. Children aren’t digital; they’re analogue. They go through a gradual, cumulative change and what went before is a part of what comes next.
I guess my survival strategy for Toby’s teenage years was one of trying not to cock up the years before. It wasn’t a teen-survival strategy, more an all-in-one strategy. I firmly believe that the onus is on the parents to protect the integrity of the relationship with children. That doesn’t mean giving in to every little whim and spoiling your child. It means if things go sour, it’s up to you to fix it. Children are children, not adults, and their outlook is more short term than yours. You brought them into the world; you have to be the one to see the bigger picture.
I speak as someone who hasn’t had any contact with his parents for decades. By the time I reached adulthood, the relationship with my parents was broken. I accepted that and happily walked away, feeling better for doing so. I wasn’t going to let my relationship with my daughter go that way. Not ever.
My parental style started with a couple of things I said I would never do:
- I would never smack or hit my child.
- I would never use the phrase “because I said so” or its equivalents.
The first has become topical, particularly here in New Zealand with the anti-smacking bill. My stance was born of experience, being regularly hit. All it did was make me resentful and more difficult to deal with. And I wanted to strike back any way I could. If you hit a child and it doesn’t work, you’ve got nowhere left to go. When your child’s memories of you as a parent feature you hitting them, don’t be surprised if there are consequences as they grow older.
I wanted a child who would remember love and laughter. I wanted a child who would one day hear the song Dear Prudence and wonder why John Lennon was not singing Dear Toby. (Real life example, I sang it to Toby that way for so long, it took her years to realise that wasn’t its title!) I wanted a child I could reason with and continue to reason with as they grew up. Reasonable debate is not an easy thing during the “terrible-twos” but I settled upon letting the tantrum play out during that phase and discussing it afterwards.
Another thing I hated was the “because I said so” response. It shuts down dialogue. If you don’t want your teenager to be sullen and uncommunicative, lead by example.
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One “don’t do” was taught to me by Toby herself when she was five or six. On being asked for something, I said “I’ll think about it.” She interpreted this as a blank refusal and it looked like a tantrum was coming. When I queried her reaction, I learned that “I’ll think about it” was a phrase her mother used as a synonym for no. Children are smaller and less educated than us, but they’re not stupid. They recognise patterns. If “I’ll think about it” is merely a delaying tactic that always leads to no, they’ll spot it. I assured Toby that whenever I said, “I’ll think about it” it meant exactly that. It might turn into a no, it might turn into a yes but it did not automatically mean no. We established trust and I didn’t break it.
So what happens when you say no? In our case, we struck an agreement. If I said no to something, then Toby was allowed to question it. If she could think of something I had missed, I would allow her to change my mind. If, however, she threw a tantrum I was not allowed to change my mind. Not even if I was completely wrong. It wasn’t a cosmetic agreement; I meant it and Toby trusted that I meant it. There were still a few tantrums, when she was younger, but it soon became clear to her that I was honest about changing my mind if convinced and never changing my mind in response to a tantrum. I can’t remember exactly when we started this approach, but it was firmly established by the time she reached her teen years. Again, we had trust.
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It helps that Toby is articulate. Her eloquence means she is capable of expressing why she thinks a decision is wrong and she is good at arguing her case. Whether the approach worked because of this or whether the approach helped her develop those skills, I couldn’t say. Probably a bit of both, but in any case it was a good match.
When Toby was growing up, I told her that I only had the one actual rule – don’t be rude or throw tantrums. Everything else was up for debate. This is what lead to the agreement she could challenge any decision. Of course, I did introduce other rules: no scaring daddy (after she gave me a fright near traffic once), daddy is the best (well, you have to try) and daddy is always right (she loved proving that one wrong!). And as she’s grown, I’ve kept the latter two (tried to anyway) and replaced the first one with always make daddy proud.
Another thing I tried to do was empower Toby to make her own decisions, with choices having consequences. A good example was in dealing with bedtimes when she was little. From a young age, Toby loved reading with me. I would allow Toby to decide when she wanted to go to bed, but if it was too late there would be no bedtime reading. I could do this because I knew how much she valued our bedtime routine of each reading the other a chapter before lights out. It was rare that she would sacrifice this for the sake of another 30 minutes or so, so I was happy.
So whenever Toby wanted something that I didn’t think was such a good idea, I would offer the pros and cons as I saw them and guide her towards the decision I wanted her to make. Of course, there were times when Toby offered pros and cons of her own that I had missed and discussion would ensue. This all meant that by the time Toby was a teenager, discussing things in a calm, considered fashion was second nature.
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Some things are pro/con neutral, in which case why try to dictate. It is important to choose your battles, especially as the child grows older. There’s no point in wasting your energy on the little things, particularly with a teenager looking to establish their independence. Let them have their independence and save your battles for the important things.
Would the things I describe work with all other children? I don’t know, but with Toby it has worked well. She’s been raised in two households, given that Toby’s mother and I split when Toby was three. Toby moved in full-time with me aged 15, after a period of finding life difficult with her mother. This means part of Toby’s development has been influenced by seeing two different approaches at play. This is pro and a con in itself, with potential issues of inconsistent treatment. But the experience of living with two different approaches has possibly predisposed her to cooperate more fully with the approach that she preferred. It’s rather presumptuous of me to say it, but that preferable approach was mine and I like to think my parental style has played a good part in Toby being the person she is today. I’m proud of her.
Michael Wray is a Chartered Management Accountant and Management Consultant. His passions are theatre, football, literature, running and rock music. Originally from Brighton, England, Michael came to NZ to be with his young daughter, a decision he’s rather pleased with making.