16/52 – Relax
Parenting teenagers is no walk in the park. This realization surprised me. Because as someone who thrived on working with teens for many years at youth drop-ins, summer camps and the like, when we chose to adopt older kids I was sweetly anticipating a quick passage through the tween years and a swift ascent to teendom.
Teens are awesome, parenting them
most some days, not so much. Who am I kidding? Some days teens are entirely unawesome.
With both of our kids, they’ve hit that teen rough patch a little bit later in to adolescence than most. With Bubaloo we’re on entirely new ground and constantly having to challenge ourselves to find new ways to parent this child. Our latest approach to parenthood was to relax.
Bubaloo repeatedly asserted that he was fully capable of parenting himself so we let him do so on a trial basis. This was a huge leap of faith, particularly when you have a kid who makes multiple, successive bad choices. We let him parent himself because we were anticipating that he’d fail, and the only way for this experiment to work was to have him fail spectacularly on his own.
We relaxed our house rules, and he dropped out of life for a bit. We figured this experiment in self-determination would last a weekend, a handful of days at most, but it dragged out for four weeks.
It was the hardest and most difficult four weeks of parenthood we’ve experienced to date. It was four weeks of nail biting and biting our tongues. It was the most uncomfortable un-relaxed, relaxing of our parental role that we’ve ever had to do. But it was necessary.
Our rules during this period of “self-parenting” were quite simple. Let us know where you are at all times. Be home by your curfew or find somewhere else to sleep (and call us to let us know). Do your part around the house.
We stopped nagging about going to school and doing homework. We stopped asking for a clean room, laundry to be done, and for showers to be taken. We didn’t ask his whereabouts, or how he was managing to come home with things that we knew he had no money to pay for. We didn’t scrutinize who he was hanging out with or what they were doing.
When things went wrong, we’d just very rationally state the situation from our perception, and always ended the sentence with, “You’re an adult now and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
The experiment went a bit awry when our child was enabled by another parent. “Oh you poor thing, you’re sick today and your moms won’t let you go home from school? Come and stay here with me.” The truth this particular day was that the kid didn’t eat breakfast, scarfed down a whack of junk food illegally obtained on the way to school, threw up, left a message for us at home that he was sick (not calling our desks or cell phones) and then skipped school so he could lie on his friend’s couch and play video games all afternoon. He wasn’t allowed in our house without an adult present. He also knew that we knew he wasn’t really sick.
I’d like to be able to say that we were entirely cool and slick with our child during this period, however, we weren’t. He was subjected to a significant number of lectures about the very adult consequences of some of his decisions. I’m sure this didn’t aid our experiment in any way. Although a few times, it felt like he heard what we had to say for the first time.
“No, Bubaloo, if you fail grade 9 gym you can’t simply take grade 10 or 11 gym. You will be in grade 10 taking grade 9 gym again. Grade 9 is a prerequisite course to taking grade 10 or 11 gym. You have to have that credit first.” He looked terrified at the prospect of having to take so much of grade 9 over again next year while he’s in grade 10.
After four weeks, we ended the experiment. I had a hunch that he needed to save face. That he was ready to be our child again, that he was ready for us to parent him, but he needed it to be mandated by us. So we authorized yet another role reversal.
We’re parenting a bit differently this time. We’re treading a bit more lightly. We’re really trying to back off on the things that don’t matter so much, and we’re trying to frame more things from a mode of empowerment and as if they’re his decision (look at all those handy tricks you learn when parenting a toddler!). He needs to get there, and he will, in his very own hard-learned lessons sort of stubborn way. This is a kid who needs to learn through his own hard-knocks. He needs to fail. And he won’t just fail small, it will always be big fails. Big, spectacular, messy fails. Which is okay as long as he has a soft place to land and parents to help him pick up the pieces.
Our job is to be the net that will be there to catch him when he falls and to gently guide him back to a route that is better than the one he chooses for himself.