On the Corner
by Robert Docter –
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE
PARENTS OF ADOLESCENTS
Columbine High taught us all some important lessons the other day. What did we learn?
As we listened to the news April 20, we moved through shock, confusion, grief, anger and back to confusion. Then, suddenly, we wanted to place blame. Of course, in doing so we were spared the painful and difficult task of looking at ourselves. We wanted to escape the challenge of trying to learn something from the experience. Here are some thoughts to get you started.
If we wait to deal with adolescent issues until our children reach adolescence, we’ve already lost.
The quality of our relationship with our adolescent children begins in infancy and continues through early and late childhood. If you’re hoping to influence the decisions of your adolescent children, from the moment they are born to the present, they need to feel your love, to hear your love–to sense the touch of your love and to perceive in you an expectation in them of positive behavior. Let them experience physical affection. Kiss them. Hug them. Smile in their presence. If we hope to be respected by our children as they mature, we must recognize that respect is earned and that it is reciprocal. Children respect those who are themselves respectful. Adolescents might be an adult’s size, but they are not adults. Help them mature by being mature around them.
People take on the characteristics of those with whom they choose to associate.
It is a fundamental responsibility of parents to socialize their children. They will become more like what they perceive you to be. What do they see in you? Have you asked them? Adolescence requires children to begin to associate more with their peers. Granting freedom to children is frightening, but it will either be granted or taken. Seizing it is even more scary. Teach them, then trust them to choose well. If the trust is not validated, let the feelings that follow be those of shock and hurt–not anger. What peer group will your children select? If you want them to choose one close to your values, they need to feel comfortable and pleasant in your presence. They need to see you making wise choices as well.
People get better at what they practice.
This is a tried and true axiom of human learning. Performance of repeated behaviors improves. What behaviors are modeled in your home? What are practiced? Humans learn from each other. Who are your children’s heroes? Who are yours? Why? What behaviors do they strive to get better at? If you want them to be better communicators, talk to them. If you want them to share their difficult frustrations or problems, share yours. If you want them to genuinely like you, then genuinely like them. If you want them to love you, model love for your spouse and them. If you want them to be open to you, avoid being closed to them.
The principal developmental task of adolescence is the formation of identity. It requires them to develop skills, knowledge, functions and attitudes leading to sound choices. This means they have to learn how to establish relevant criteria for the choice and recognize that some choices need to be abandoned and some seized. Doing this in an affluent, free society is more difficult because more choices are available. Parents help children form identity by teaching them how to make good choices–including being able to predict the consequences of both choices made and choices repudiated. This is not accomplished by telling them what to do.
We avoid spiritual development at the peril of our humanness.
Only mankind can predict the future. Only mankind can learn from the behavior of others. Only mankind experiences spirit. It cannot be avoided any more than breathing or thinking. When we refuse to seek the maturation of our own spirituality, we are certain to neglect it in those around us. When adolescents emulate the dark qualities of a “Gothic” culture they seek a spiritual connection. Spirituality, like attitude, is “caught,” not bought. Human values, moral decisions and attitudes develop within the framework of one’s spiritual identity. It cannot be imposed. It is sensed and gradually internalized through association.
Rules dictate how families operate.
Rules determine the boundary lines of behavior. In many respects they determine what feelings are shared, who talks to whom, when, and in what manner. They are rarely identified explicitly. Each member of the family draws conclusions individually. We begin getting into trouble with this silence. Children learn to follow society’s rules by experiencing positive rules in the family. These are rules that are discussed, negotiated and explained. Many times, adolescents assume, even hope, parents will tell them “No”–“Don’t do that.” Each society defines its own “bad” behavior These are based both on societal values and the characteristics of the individuals. In identifying these characteristics, we need to look beyond the superficial aspects of dress or hair style into the criteria used for identity formation. Each parent decides how he or she will relate to their children–either as a dictatorial autocrat, a permissive ignorer, or a knowledgeable nurturer. Only the final one is effective.
And so, dear parents, speak to your children today. Touch them. Say: “I love you.” Thank you for reading this. There’s much more to say on the topic–perhaps later.