I often say, half-jokingly, “parenting is not for the faint of heart.” As my children have grown, I have found that more and more to be true. In fact, sometimes I find myself actually afraid of my kids.
It sounds ridiculous, I know. After all, I’ve seen them in diapers. But a teenager can be an intimidating figure. It’s not just that my teenage son could pick me up and throw me if he wanted to. It’s also that I don’t want to lose my relationships with my kids. I don’t want them to turn away from me because I was too strict or overbearing. It’s really true that as parents we have to resist the urge to be our children’s friends. My children have plenty of friends. What they need from me are unconditional love, firm boundaries, and values for living.
Parental courage is on my mind because this morning I attended an informative and entertaining talk by Rosalind Wiseman, educator and author of the books Queen Bees and Wannabes and Masterminds and Wingmen, two excellent works about the social and inner lives of adolescents. One of the things I learned from Wiseman is the virtue of silence. Parents, especially mothers, have a tendency to pepper their children with questions the moment they walk in the door or hop in the car. Wiseman recommends giving kids a little space so that they will willingly come to us to share what is going on in their lives.
I know from experience that she is right. I used to find my phone conversations with my son in college awkward and unsatisfying. I would rush in with all kinds of thoughts, advice and questions, leaving him little time to do anything more than react. So I started pausing during our phone calls, forcing myself not to fill in the silence. What happened was that my son started telling me about the interesting or important things that were happening to him, things that went beyond the basic information about his classes, fraternity events or practical needs.
Another point made by Wiseman resonated with me deeply. As an advocate of anti-bullying efforts in schools, she feels very strongly about the way kids talk to and about each other. She strongly encouraged parents to call out our kids and their friends on name-calling and insensitive labeling, such as using words like “bitch,” “gay,” and “retarded” to put others down. I had to admit to myself that I hesitate to confront such trash talk, which is prevalent among teenagers. I fear that taking a stand would make my kids social pariahs and that they would shut me out of their lives completely. Yet staying silent gives them the message that adults don’t really mind this kind of bullying behavior.
I may not become the most popular parent by being strict about drinking and curfews, expecting kids to respect me and each other, and insisting that they take responsibility for their actions. But doing these unpopular things will convey to my children what values I hold for myself and for them as they grow into adulthood.
In our culture, we love to shower our children with all kinds of gifts – the latest tech gadgets, nice cars, cool shoes. But the greatest gift we can give them ultimately is the courage to be a good person. And we can only give them that gift by having the courage to be good parents.