A 2001 study from the Harvard University Center for Health Communication analyzed a broad range of recent research on teens, and distilled the key messages. This article is the fourth in a series designed to share parents' experiences, following the Harvard study’s outline of five basics of parenting adolescents: 1) love and connect, 2) monitor and observe, 3) guide and limit, 4) model and consult, and 5) provide and advocate. The study is available free online - "Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action," by A. Rae Simpson, Ph.D.,
“There is no question that a growing circle of adults and peers influences teens’ thinking and decisions during adolescence, but more surprising is the extent to which parents’ values and ideas remain influential.” Conclusions such as these from Harvard researchers can be reassuring to parents of teens, and perhaps even more so to parents of younger children. Many parents look ahead to the teen years with apprehension, and some express downright fear and dread. Common misconceptions about teens along with media coverage of the extreme behavior of a minority of teens exaggerate the difficulties of these years.
The Harvard study reports: “...teens tend to have values and beliefs on major issues like morality and politics that are similar to their parents. If they have strong bonds with their parents, teens even tend to choose friends with values that are consistent with those of their parents, when such peer choices are available.”
Teens must have ever increasing opportunities to practice reasoning and decision making: “In order to strengthen their decision-making skills, teens need environments that present neither too little nor too great a level of challenge--neither an overprotective environment that presents too few opportunities for learning from mistakes and coming up against problems nor an overwhelming environment that presents too few opportunities for trying out new coping strategies and experiencing successes.”
We asked parents to tell us about their experiences with the “model and consult” basic.
From Eileen D.:
My daughter Ellie (eleven) seemed so satisfied with her activities (piano, cello, unstructured playing with friends) that I didn’t see much need for my direct, intimate involvement with any specific activity. What she loves to do most of all these days is draw animé style characters. And draw and draw. And show and trade drawings with her friends. And then surf the web looking at web sites showing similar characters. She asked me to set up a web site for her, where she could show off her work to her immediate friends and schoolmates, and garner some fame. As I have some experience with web site construction and have my own web site, I set up some pages for her. I advise her on what drawings of hers would look best on a computer screen, and how the mechanics of a web page, such as links, are set up. Ellie has enjoyed planning what each page should contain and how they all work as a whole. She has caught on quickly and is thrilled to have her fifteen minutes of fame. My husband and I had a talk with her about Internet safety. Her site does not include her e-mail address--instead, she has a guest book where people can leave comments. There is also a page where she describes herself a bit, but again we’ve taken care to be sure there is not identifying personal information--she doesn’t use her last name, the name of the school she attends or the town we live in, though she does identify the state she’s from. This is a project with no end in sight!
From Maureen W.:
My oldest, Kathleen, is now eleven and just this year we have stumbled upon a wonderful new stage of our mother/daughter relationship. Kathleen loves to write, and this interest has been fostered by different writing programs. Many of the programs developed for children have corresponding lectures directed to parents. Now, because of her talent we are both reaping the rewards of some very interesting seminars. We’ve attended Saturday Writers Group workshops at a nearby university. Both of us enjoy learning about writing and working on our own projects. Then we come together and share what we have written and talk about other possible topics for our next project. We have even developed a family journaling time (at the suggestion of one of the workshop teachers). Each member of the family has a journal, and we choose a topic, write independently for fifteen minutes and then share what we have written.
Another activity that Kathleen and I have shared is volunteer work at a historic site. I was a costumed guide every other Sunday, giving visitors guided tours of the historic home. Kathleen became involved during special events at Christmastime, children’s teas and during the annual celebration of Mary Washington’s birthday. We both enjoy history, and this let us both live out some fantasies.
From Donna D.:
I took a crew class with my son Andy (fifteen) two mornings a week. We decided to give this class a try because we were interested in having a special “appointment” together for just the two of us, we each wanted to work out to better ourselves, and Andy wanted to see if crew might be something he’d like to get into in high school. As his mother, I wanted to see exactly what would be involved--this way I know firsthand.
Aimee is ten, and I’m an assistant junior Girl Scout leader for her troop. She helps me prepare for meetings, we talk together a lot about how we feel about the troop, how the girls are getting along, what badges and volunteer help we are interested in, and how to have more fun while getting things done at the same time. I share with her what I’m learning as I complete training classes so that I can “rise through the ranks” with her. Girl Scouts is one of those activities that a number of parents sadly take advantage of for child care. But I see it as the perfect activity to involve myself in, along with my daughter, because the foundation of responsibility, leadership and other values I try to encourage lend themselves in a more meaningful way than mere lectures from mom.
This past year I’ve also encouraged my kids to be involved as we provide help to ill family members and friends. By having them assist me by preparing and delivering special meals, making cards, writing letters and joining me for visits, together we are dealing with serious issues and consequences of life. A benefit of this group effort is that it makes us stronger, more understanding and empathetic. We stay connected to the people we are helping and to each other.
As a family, to cut down on the whining and nagging that often seems to take up more valuable time between older kids and parents than it ought to, we each write in a family gratitude journal, which has a way of keeping us more focused on the good in our lives.
From Nelia O.:
I’ve taken the time to teach my teens basic life management skills--the fundamentals of yard work, cleaning the house, preparing a meal, managing a bank account. While almost any child is capable, it takes an attentive parent to set them in motion and assure follow-through. If you have a hobby or special skill to share, but your child’s interests lie elsewhere, consider getting together with another parent to trade--you can teach each other’s children and if you can work all together in the same room, you’ll have the added benefit of getting to know each other well.
From Marian G.:
With our middle-school-age children, my husband, Pat, and I have worked over the years to consciously model respect for others and a caring attitude for people and the world around us.
We believe this begins at home, with teaching respect for all family members. Recently, my son Jake thanked me for a good dinner. Surprised, I commented, “You complained earlier when I told you what we were having for dinner.” He then told me that when Pat and he were driving home from soccer practice, Jake complained about what I was making for dinner. Pat reminded Jake that I put a lot of work into planning meals, shopping for groceries and cooking dinners, and that while not every meal can be a favorite, every one should be appreciated. I felt quite complimented and then chuckled when Jake added, “Yes, Dad said he doesn’t like everything you make either, but he eats it anyway without complaining since he likes it most of the time.”
I generally write thank-you notes for gifts or special kindnesses, and my children have been drawing or writing thank-you notes to family and friends since they were toddlers. We often take homemade soups and desserts to elderly neighbors. Now, Tara and Jake often take the initiative in sharing special food. After a heavy snowstorm, they surprise these same neighbors by shoveling out their cars, making a game of getting it done and back in the house before the neighbors see them.
On a broader community scale, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, we selected food and supplies to donate to the search and rescue teams at the Pentagon. As we delivered the goods, we noticed how much help was needed. We rolled up our sleeves and helped for a few hours and then decided to volunteer on the weekend sorting, packaging and boxing donated supplies at the Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services. As our children remember the horrors of September 11, I hope they will also remember the camaraderie and satisfaction they felt in working with others to help those in need.
From Cathy G.:
Our only child Michael is a high school senior and is in the midst of the college search process. It actually began back in his sophomore year when the mailbox began to overflow with colorful college brochures. Wanting to help but with our own college experiences far behind us, my husband and I sought advice from friends and co-workers who recently had survived their own children’s departure. We quickly discovered there was no “one size fits all” answer to our questions. Some students take over the entire process and need very little assistance. Others are not ready to deal with the issue of college at all. Our son, like most kids, fell somewhere between the two extremes. Casually we began to talk more about schools and his future, trying to help him clarify short-term and long-term goals. The option of not going to college was also raised. We did not want to push him into a situation he was not ready for or did not want. Gradually over the course of many months, it became apparent that Michael did want to attend college and soon a picture of the kind of school he felt he wanted began to emerge. At the dinner table we discussed the virtues of a large school versus a small school, private versus public, city versus rural or suburban, and distance from home. All these talks helped to make an overwhelming task begin to look more manageable.
In his junior year Michael was busier than ever with schoolwork, friends and activities. The pile of brochures grew and spread across his bedroom floor, and at this point I stepped in to weed through them to find colleges that matched the criteria we had discussed. I began going through college guide-books, magazine articles and college web sites, keeping my husband and Michael in the loop by sharing information with them. Sometimes Michael would become more involved and check out the information himself and other times he would tell me I was nuts to be doing all this. Then one late winter day Michael came home from school and thanked me for all of the help. He said most of the kids’ parents weren’t helping much at all.
During spring break of his junior year we began visiting schools, and we continued into the summer in spite of Michael’s protests about the visits interfering with his plans. The visits helped make the whole concept of leaving home to go to college more real for him. A school became more than just a colorful brochure.
Now in his senior year, Michael continues to discuss his future with us at the dinner table. The dreaded college interview was a hot topic for a while. Paul and I shared our own experiences and we role-played a bit. We also pointed out that he was interviewing them as well, and it was important to find out as much as possible about the school. Partially finished applications have piled up on the desk and to help organize this paperwork, Paul made a chart with deadlines clearly indicated. Michael will soon make his first overnight visit to one of the colleges he is seriously considering. I’m sure this and a few more future overnights at other schools will fuel many more dinner table discussions over the course of this exciting time in our son’s life.