Yesterday, waiting at gate B22A at O’Hare a parent told me how frustrated she was with her teenage daughter.
“What did you try?” I asked.
“You know. I confronted unacceptable behavior; I acknowledged her feelings while insisting on what I wanted. I tried not take it personally, but nothing worked.”
“How do you know it’s not working?” I asked.
She looked at me as if I were either goading her or simply an idiot. “She keeps doing the very things I tell her not to do.”
“With teenagers,” I said, “that is not a sign that it is not working. Adolescents are not constituted to obey. They are wired to disobey. Well, not exactly disobey. They are wired to make their own decisions—not necessarily good ones, but to make them. It is essential for their survival that they practice making decisions and noticing results.”
She, of course, was not relieved to hear this. Raising teenagers can be a nerve- wracking experience, and I have never known a parent who is in the throes of this enterprise to be easily pacified. And anyway, I never got the chance to attempt further consolation, because the boarding process began just as I was delivering my shocking message that “They are wired to disobey.”
I wish I had had the time to tell her about a conversation I had with 18-year-old Allison as I drove her home from a basketball game one Wednesday evening several years ago.
“I listen to my father,” said Allison, “because I have found that he tells me things that turn out to be true. Like ‘Never go out without money,’ he says.”
Allison had needed someone to talk to. Last Saturday night there had been a party where some of her classmates got drunk and trashed the house of a classmate.
She went on: “I wish I could talk to the parents of my friends and tell them how to talk to their kids. I wish they would tell them things like ‘Never go out without money.’ There we are at Starbucks and they’re all, ‘Allison, can you pay for this? I didn’t bring any money,’ and I go, ‘Sure.’ But it get’s annoying. They do pay me back, but it’s annoying. Parents ought to be careful what they tell their kids, so that when they give them advice, the kids will listen. What those kids did to that house was gross.”
“But you don’t always do what your father says, do you?”
“No, but when he talks, I do listen. Sure, it makes me mad when he tells me to get off Facebook and to start doing my homework, but I know he is telling me the right thing. That’s the point. I know it is the right thing for him to tell me. It makes him mad when I don’t do it right away, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be between parents and their teenagers. I know he’s right. I just have to do it myself. He has become like an authority. When he speaks I listen.”
Don’t all parents want to become “like an authority?” Listen to Allison. She is on to something very important.
Until age five, it is important for parents to back up their statements–with force if necessary. If a parent says: “No, you can’t have a candy cane before dinner,” then it is very important that the child does not eat a candy cane before dinner. “Eight o’clock bedtime” has to mean: In bed by eight. Period. If a parent says it’s bad for you and then let’s you do it, how can you trust such a parent. Why should a child listen to such a parent?
However, by age thirteen, the human brain is working to develop and consolidate the part of the brain that makes decisions—the pre-frontal cortex. By 18 the teenage brain has all the circuitry of an adult brain, but not enough practice. They know drinking to excess is not good for you, and that trashing a house is very bad, but the adolescent mind is open to other possibilities which must be tested to be “known.” Close relationships with adult authorities are important for helping kids know which end is up. If kids listen to parents it is because parents have proven that they are authorities worth listening to.