How much control should parents have over their teenagers? That question caused quite a stir in my freshman humanities class. Needless to say my students' response ran the gamut. Some felt that parents should have no say in their lives. Others thought that most parents knew more than they did and so they thought their parents had a right to say and control a lot of things.
Let's look more closely at this rather complicated question. How much control should parents have over their high school children?
Maybe another way to frame the question is: what should you expect from your high school age son or daughter? How do you expect your teenage son or daughter to behave?
Parenting teenagers becomes a very challenging enterprise because they don't come with a "how to" manual. Most of us have learned to parent, for better or for worse, through trial and error or from the school of "hard knocks."
One basic parenting principle is that you need a blueprint. Hopefully, it is not one carved in stone, but rather one that is easily adapted and amended as the need arises. As you become experienced, you become aware of what is effective and life-giving and what is not.
Unfortunately, there are a growing number of parents who want only one thing from their children, and that is to be their friend. Ideally that sounds great, but it is not realistic, healthy or practical.
A real litmus test on your effectiveness as a parent is how many times a day your teenager tells you he or she hates you. As a norm, if it is on a regular basis, then you are probably very effective.
Parenting teenagers is hard work. It demands time, effort and energy. These are ideals that are often in great demand but short supply.
As a parent, you have to be willing to set limits and boundaries, establish curfews and family rules. These family rules should contain some that are flexible and some that are absolute. The important issue is you need a plan that you can consistently enforce and live by.
Most teenagers balk at any kind of control or social regulations. However, if your rules are clear, reasonable and enforceable, for the most part teenagers will be compliant. However, if you are inconsistent and easy to get over on, you will have a disaster on your hands.
When your children are young, they need to hear and have reinforced those basic family rules. If you start when they are young and impressionable, they will see your consistency. They won't like it as teenagers, but they will realize that they need to comply or there will be trouble.
Children often become what they hear. Thus, as adults we need to be careful with what we say. We cannot be judgmental. We cannot discriminate because of color, or social and economic status. We need to be inclusive, respectful and nonjudgmental.
As parents, we have a right to set a specific standard for our children. We must never indicate that our standard is better than someone else's. Therefore children with tattoos, body piercings and pink spiked hair should not be condemned or dismissed as "societal low lifes." We should not judge a book by its' cover and forbid our children from socializing with teenagers who choose to express themselves in that way.
You do have the right to express your concern without judgment and condemnation. Once the concern is expressed, let it go and move on with life. Too often when we become obsessed with some of our children's social choices, we only push them into being sneaky and dishonest.
The real focus of our concern should not be grounded in externals and what a person looks like, but rather those deeper, value centered issues. We should be concerned that our children develop relationships with teenagers who are honest and forthright. Respect, responsibility and accountability should be the defining values we hope for.
In that context, we should hope that by high school age our kids realize that drugs, alcohol and smoking are illegal and not positive choices for their age. We must be mindful and lead by example, if we expect our children to comply. Indifference will only feed recklessness and give them a mixed message.
These social issues present the greatest challenge to our parenting because we live in an age of social co-existence and indifference. Too many parents take the position that "they are going to do it anyway, what is the big deal?"
In the grand scheme of life, it may not be on a scale with murder, rape and violence, but they are dangerous social choices that have potentially lethal consequences if they go un-addressed.
If smoking, smoking pot and weekend drinking are against the rules in your home and your son is consistently non-compliant, there should be a reasonable consequence. This kind of confrontation is difficult and oftentimes uncomfortable, but an encounter that must be had for the sake of your son.
What about dating and other relational choices? We live in a culture that is amoral. Don't presume that your kids will get the right message growing up, going to school and living in a good neighborhood. As parents, we need to be clear as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior.
It is not enough to have an abridged edition of "the birds and the bees" talk, with a chapter on birth control and safe sex. As parents, we have to really engage our children around all of the complex issues of human relationships. As most of us know firsthand, relationships are not easy. They are among the most complicated things people engage in.
As one of my college freshmen said in class regarding the question we began with, "It is not about control, but about wisdom and guidance." I think he is correct, but our style, method and dynamic are also important. As parents, we need to prioritize what is significant in our family, pick our issues and not sweat the small stuff.
Remember, it is not about perfection, but rather about progress.