A short note to parents of teenagers:
I was asked what advice I'd give parents of teenagers. I’m not a parent, but I’ll share the two things I most appreciated about my parents. Both are related to transparency: on your kids' part, and on your part.
1. Be a snoop.
Yes, that’s right. I’m telling you that I appreciated that my parents were snoops. I have no idea where parents get the idea that there are boundaries they can’t cross into their child’s privacy. You’re their parent. There is no such thing as privacy. It is your obligation to your child to know everything that is going on in their life, whether they tell you or not. And trust me, if they know you’re going to snoop, they’d rather you hear it from them then from the notes in their backpack. I knew that the more open and transparent I was with my parents, the less they would feel the need to 'search for their own answers'. So, I was transparent. They could ask me anything, and I would answer.
As a teenager, it was just understood that my mom was going to snoop. I knew that there was a chance she would read my journal, go through my room...my email if I left it open. But my parents were open about it. In fact, “There is no such thing as privacy” was a mantra at our house from the time we were young. We made better decisions because of it. This also provided fodder for conversation re: what are the fruits of these actions? Are you being the best version of yourself? Are you looking out for others? There were other times where I knew they snooped, but we didn’t talk about it. You do not have to seize every teachable moment. But, we learned to evaluate the consequences of our actions.
I know it killed my sister when my mom suspected she was dating an older guy at school, and she went through her locker right then. But, my mom got pregnant at 16. To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable for her to want to know everything that was happening in our ‘romantic’ lives.
Tell your kid you're a snoop, and be proud of it. There is a safety that you are giving your child by snooping. If I know that you’re going to figure out if I’m bad, I’ll be much more motivated to make a smart choice that you’ll celebrate with me. I learn to appreciate making good decisions. This means being diligent because your kid might get better at hiding things. I still don’t know what that looks like in this digital age, but it might mean requiring passwords for Facebook, etc. It might mean that your kid can have a phone, but you’re free to go through the texts and calls at any time.
Snooping meant that my parents were able to trust us with more adult, responsible choices because #1, they would know the outcome of our choices (and in general, we were more honest about it), and #2, because the house was a snoop-zone, they had already learned to trust the decisions we were making. Of course some of your children will tell you: You can't do this! It's not fair! Well, you can, and it is. You're their parent.
If you are snooping, you can be aware of what adult decisions your kids are facing, and better equip them to make the right decision. That doesn’t mean forbidding them from doing stuff that completely freaks you out like going someplace you don't know, with people you don't know (your baby is all grown up!), but it does mean that they know YOU ARE WATCHING THEM. It means celebrating with them when you see the good decisions that they’re making. You goal is to prepare your child for adulthood, not protect them from bad things that happen. I’m amazed by the number of parents that have no idea what’s going on in their child’s life. But the ones that do know are able to guide their children through troubled waters.
One more thing. I think all of the above applies between married couples. Know each others passwords. You're not treating each other like children: you're recognizing and protecting that you are one. The second there is something to hide, all is not well.
2. Be transparent.
Listen. At 16, your kid already knows that no one is perfect. It confuses me why parents would want to pretend like they never made/make mistakes. Your stupid choices are a breeding ground for quality, life-directing conversation. This is the time for you to say, “I did this, and this was the fruit of it.” Additionally, I wonder who parents think is going to talk to their kids about the uncomfortable things… if it’s uncomfortable for you, that means it’s even easier for someone (your kid’s friend) to screw up.
I was lucky to have parents who were an open book. I knew that if I had a question, no matter how uncomfortable, possibly inappropriate, or ‘out there’, my parents would attempt to answer it as best they could. If your kid asks you a question (any question), and are met with a brick wall or trite answers, they will not learn to trust you with more serious questions that are closer to their heart. That means answering every question they have. Seriously. There should be no questions off-limits to them. If you are expecting transparency from them, lead with your transparency. You are their best resource, and if they have a question, you want them to come away with an answer from you. I asked my parents everything. And you know what? I trusted their answers more than my peers. I’d rather get the information from them than from someone my age who didn’t know. Your kids would rather hear it from you.
I think this was one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me. I was able to ask any question I imagined, and it was like mining for diamonds. My parents traversed some pretty dark waters, and through that deep darkness, they came up with some pearls. They could easily have glossed over their journey, have flipped quickly past that page, but instead, they endowed me with a new legacy… the truth they had learned from their mistakes. I don’t have to make those same mistakes now. How comforting for me to be able to ask “What motivated you to choose sin instead of what you knew was the right thing?” and “What could have stopped you from being selfish in that circumstance?” I now have a map for the waters ahead of me… something that I am beginning to recognize many people my age do not have. They feel they are walking this journey by themselves, when if that door was open with their parents, they too would have a map.
So, what do you do when your kids don’t ask questions? They’re not curious, or they find it uncomfortable to broach certain subjects? Talk anyway. There were times when I know my parents were actively looking for ways to tell us how they had screwed up…even in the present tense. My mom would share when she had been angry or rude unjustly to my dad, or circumstances where she would have to go back and say, ‘I’m sorry’ to someone she had wronged. These were driving in the car, standing in the kitchen, in between here-and-there conversations. Your kid might give you that face, but they’re listening. Trust me. They want to know what the map looks like. They just might not want you to know that it means so much to them. Because of my parent’s honesty, I knew what marriage looked like. The roadblocks we would face. What parenting looks like. The roadblocks we would face. Even more than that, I had the assurance the people make it through. This is not forever. This is just a part of the journey.