26 Sep Start Preparing for the teen years
by Mary Beth Bonacci
Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver, and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love. I found the Real Love book an excellent resource for my teenagers and myself on sexuality. It is written in a clear, simple, straightforward manner at a level young people can appreciate and parents applaud. Worth getting for your home.
We had our first snowfall here in Denver last night. I’m sure my niece and nephew are very excited. Not because they get to go sledding or make snow forts (there really isn’t enough snow for that.) No, they’re excited about snow because it means they’re getting older. Their birthdays are both in December, so they know that snowfall means their birthdays are close. And they love that.
Me? Not so much. While they’re anxiously counting the years until they can do “grown up stuff,” I am desperately wishing there was a way I could keep them as young and sweet and innocent as they are right now. I see the world that awaits them and I’m already dreading the pressures and temptations they’ll have to face.
I’ve been working with teenagers — and the parents of teenagers — for over 20 years. I know for a fact that most parents feel the way I do about the teen years. They’re scared. Children who were playing with toys the day before yesterday are suddenly expected to talk, dress and act like the worst stereotype of a promiscuous 20-something and their parents don’t know quite what to do about it.
Most parents deal with their fear by the parental equivalent of plugging their ears and humming. They enjoy their kids while they’re young and they figure they’ll cross the “teen” bridge when they come to it. I would advocate a different approach.
I once gave a talk about “living life from the deathbed backwards.” In other words, think about what you will want your life to look like when you’re on your deathbed looking back at it and build that life now. In the same way, I’m an advocate of parenting “from the teen years backwards.” Parents of small children need to think deeply and specifically about what traits their teens will need in order to successfully navigate that portion of their lives. And then, their parents need to work at inculcating those traits in their children.
When are children more likely to absorb information from their parents? When they’re three and believe their parents can do no wrong, or when they’re 13 and can’t believe their parents could possibly be so lame about everything?
You want to pour as much information as possible into their brains when they’re three. Not only are little kids more receptive to their parents’ suggestions, but they’re also at a stage where they’re building their worldview. They don’t know anything, so they ask about everything. Anything you tell a small child goes onto his or her “hard drive.”
Start now on “building” the kind of teenager you want. I’m not talking about a shallow, surface approach. “I don’t want my kids to do drugs, so I’ll teach my kids that drugs are bad.” No. You don’t need to tell a small child about illegal street drugs. You need to think deeper. Why are some kids more susceptible to drugs than others? Well, maybe some fall into it because they’re not confident, so build confidence in your child.
Often, they try drugs because they aren’t strong enough to stand up to peer pressure. Watch your child from a very young age. Watch him around his friends. Is he strong enough to do the right thing even when it isn’t popular or does he value being liked over standing up for principles? If it’s the latter, work on it now when the stakes are low.
You don’t want your daughter to be seduced by a sweet-talking manipulator? Start teaching her about love at a young age. Tell her over and over that real love means wanting what’s best for the other and that anyone who pressures her or doesn’t respect her wishes or her principles doesn’t really love her.
Don’t want her to be tempted by the slutty clothes her friends wear? Teach her about the sacredness of her body. Teach her that sacred means good — that she covers the private parts of her body out of respect for herself and for God. Imbue in her an awe and respect for her body that would make excessively exposing it unthinkable to her.
Afraid of an eating disorder? Emphasize the importance of good nutrition as fuel for the body and the damage that can happen when we don’t give our bodies the fuel they need.
Are you starting to get the idea? Think about the teenage problems you dread, figure out on a deep level what causes them, and address them ahead of time.
You’ll notice that none of this requires actually discussing “mature” topics while they’re young. You don’t have to describe bulimia to help a child understand nutrition. You don’t need to talk about leering men to teach a girl about respecting herself and her body.
This is about laying a foundation. Then when they’re older and it’s time to discuss those mature subjects, you can refer back to these basic truths you’ve inculcated in them. The discussion will go much easier. Who knows, you may even enjoy your kids’ teen years.