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Teens - Guide and Limit

March 25, 2002
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    This is the third in a series of articles in which parents of teens share their experiences. The series follows the outline of five basics of parenting adolescents presented in a recent study from the Harvard University Center for Health Communication: (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.,

    On "Guide and limit" the study states: "Teens need parents to uphold a clear but evolving set of boundaries, maintaining important family rules and values, but also encouraging increased competence and maturity."

    For many of us, this "basic" causes the most contention, agonizing and worry during the teen years. The study notes: "As children become teens, decisions about limits often take place many times a day and must be made in the context of teens' new levels of risk taking and rule testing. The disadvantages of both rigid and permissive approaches become more apparent, and have higher stakes as teens acquire adult skills and rights. Lack of success with these 'traditional' strategies can tempt parents to give up, in particular because learning better alternatives takes information, time and energy, all of which are in short supply for already overstressed and overworked American parents."

    As we all know, any family can become overstressed and overworked (with volunteer commitments as well as paid employment). Some stresses, such as the illness or death of a family member, cannot be foreseen. Others stresses (such as a major volunteer commitment or home improvement project) might be avoided or scheduled with care. To parent a teen requires time for reflection, for gathering information, and for discussion--with your teen, your spouse, and often, with other parents.

    As our older children and teens start to spend time out in the world without us, the pressure mounts on us to make good decisions about what they're allowed to do. We want to keep them safe, but we must also allow them to explore and learn. We asked parents to tell us about their experiences with the "guide and limit" basic.

From Mike S.:

     There is nothing a teenager looks forward to more than the freedom of driving. I know from my own experiences that driving was one of the "rights" I could not wait to acquire. I use the term "rights" because most teenagers think of driving as a right, and my son was no exception. However, it is our job as parents to remind our eager drivers that driving is a privilege. Of course, we first have to explain the difference between a right and a privilege, but that is for another discussion.

     One of the main problems I've noticed was that since my teen had been riding in the car with us since he was born, he had a skewed sense that driving is easy. I worried he would be overconfident. My job was then to teach him that driving is not an easy task, it only looks easy. I had to enforce that he needs to be ever vigilant to follow the rules, that he can't take anything for granted, that he needs to resist the urge to use his newfound freedom foolishly. Above all, he needed to understand that it is only an automobile, and the most important thing is that he, and his passengers, are safe. I started by using the time while we were in the car together to point out the circumstances that can arise--like when the lost driver made a left turn from the right lane. Or how the distracted driver fumbled for something on the seat next to her, so we could not see her head above the seat. It really hit home to my son when I pointed these things out.

     I had to balance teaching him not to be overconfident, while at the same time not scaring him into being too cautious. I took him to large parking lots and showed him how the car reacted to the driver's actions. I intentionally made the car do things he would face, like hitting the brakes very hard while turning. Then I had him perform the same maneuver. It helped to build his confidence, and hopefully will help ease us through the pangs of letting him out on his own in the near future. We'll know he has practiced some things he will see in real driving.

     It was also very important to show him the nuts and bolts of driving. I sat my son down and showed him our insurance policy, and explained the changes that will occur when we add him to the policy. He was very surprised by how much our annual insurance costs will increase when we add him to the policy. I showed him what it takes for the "care and feeding" of a car--the gas bill for the month, the latest repair bill. I explained what can happen through neglect and abuse. It has given him a better sense of what the privilege of driving means.

From Heidi B.:

     One of the areas that concerns me most is the issue of popular culture and its impact on decisions about clothing and media (television, videos and movies, music, the Internet and magazines). This can overwhelm any parent and it certainly dominates conversation between my husband and me.

     My husband John and I established a family norm early on in our children's lives, through our purchases and wardrobe habits, as to what was expected in terms of modesty, respect for others, and appropriateness for an occasion. I am pleased to see that our oldest three (seventeen, fifteen and twelve) have all internalized these standards. It is very rare for my husband and I to overrule a decision one of them has made. More likely, we send one of the younger ones back for a clean shirt. Just as likely, one of the older siblings will send them back.

     When my fifteen-year-old daughter wanted to buy a halter-style top that, while reasonably tasteful, left me uneasy, I struggled remembering my own teenage years. We agreed that she could buy and wear it, but that it was appropriate only in a very limited number of places (not public).

     Out oldest son, Charlie, attends a small private school with a strict dress and hair code. Two years ago, he wanted to bleach the top of his hair. John discussed it with him and explained that it would be fine for the summer. This past summer, Charlie had his hair shaved into a Mohawk after school was out. After two weeks, he was tired of it and had his sister give him a haircut. He also commented that wearing it started to make him nervous because he felt adult strangers didn't trust him--an interesting and valuable lesson about impressions. We know that kids need some room to experiment, and it can be difficult as parents to decide in what areas to allow experimentation.

     It is fairly easy to control what your children watch on television or at the movies when they are young. However, I struggle with many if not most of the movies labeled PG-13 or above. In short, our kids see very few movies, and most of what they do see, either my husband or I has previewed it first. Some people say, "Oh, it's just a movie," but I don't agree. I think that most thoughtful adults can admit that there are movies that they see which leave them disturbed. I think it is easy to underestimate the impact of visual images. One mom I know complained that after watching an animated movie, her six-year-old daughter began imitating the suggestive dancing of the primary character. It was an example to me of the power of visual images.

     Recently our daughters asked to see a particular PG-13 movie with some friends. Unimpressed with the review I had just read in the paper, I checked out a thorough description at a movie review website, and decided no. They weren't happy with the decision, mainly because they looked forward to doing something fun with pals. I told them that while I did not believe the movie would corrupt them, that it was so lacking in any merit, that I could not permit them to "vote" with their money for this movie. The movie industry understands dollars, and at some point each of us consumers has to decide how to reward and discipline the decisions made by the entertainment industry. Call it a mini-economics lecture. Having rejected that outing, I did offer to help them organize another event with their friends.

     I think that it is easier to set and maintain limits for one's teens, even while some of their peers run wild, if they feel home is a safe and fun haven. We have always included our children's friends in our activities, including sleepovers, meals and small trips. While it can be more work and involve some expense, parents can better get to know their children's peers and their parents, so that there is parental teamwork between families. It helps to create the kind of parent community one needs in the teen years.

From Susan D.:

     I am in the middle of that wondrous journey called "parenting teens." While often exciting, rewarding and even fun, guiding teens along the road to independence can provide some nailbiting detours.

     Case in point--dating. When our fifteen-year-old daughter proudly announced that a boy had "asked her out," my husband and I were suddenly thrown into that ominous world of teen dating. We have always been very involved parents--carefully monitoring where our children were and whom they were with. This gets harder to do but becomes more critical as they get older.

     Our first questions were: who is this boy and what is he like? These were things we would need to find out if our daughter would be spending time with him. Fortunately, their "dating" has involved occasional phone calls, trips to the mall, seeing a movie (usually with another couple), and watching videos at his house or ours. Since we've never allowed our children to watch television or movies we think are inappropriate, we must approve of the choices they make as they venture out with friends.

     I often volunteer to drive them wherever they are going, so I have the opportunity to strike up a conversation with her date and see how they interact. Whenever I have met his parents, either as we are dropping off our children or picking them up from each other's houses, I have spent some extra time to talk to them and get the know them.

     As my daughter becomes a young woman, I think it is especially important to be open with her regarding "boy stuff." We've always had lots of great conversations, which have paved the way for us to be able to honestly discuss some sensitive topics. I hope some of my own teenage experiences will prove helpful to my daughter. And I remind myself to try to remember what it's like to be fifteen!

     I know things will change when my daughter starts to drive and her dates are old enough to pick her up in their own cars. As we have done with our eighteen-year-old son, we'll invite friends to spend time in our house where we can get a sense of who they are and they can get to know us, too.

From Fred M.:

     As our son Scott reached his teens, he became more and more interested in music. He listened intently at every opportunity, started playing guitar for hours on end, and worked on putting a band together. His music of choice was rock, not unusual for a teen, and he seemed to be just soaking it in.

     Inevitably, he reached the point where he wanted to hear live music. He was about fifteen, and wanted to go to some of the clubs in downtown Washington, D.C. Though we live close to the city we were not terribly familiar with areas beyond the monuments and museums. We knew that some neighborhoods could be quite dangerous, and the address of the music club he wanted to go to didn't mean anything to us. Both my wife and I had spent time as older teens and young adults in major cities, and we didn't want to forbid him from seeking out some of the interesting and exciting things they had to offer. We asked ourselves: when would we let him go to the city? What would make us feel like we had enough information to make a reasonable decision?

     I decided I would volunteer to go with them to see what the whole scene was like. Would the neighborhood seem safe? Was there going to be easy access to parking? Would they be comfortable at the end of the concert leaving late in the evening? Since he wasn't going to go otherwise, Scott decided to take me up on my offer. Actually, this wasn't that big a trial for either of us, since we share a love for music, even if it's not always the same music.

     It turned out rather well. I ended up being comfortable with the situation. The neighborhood seemed reasonably safe and the crowd at the club was not too wild. Scott wasn't too embarrassed by my presence and he even acknowledged me every once in a while. I did wish I had earplugs! A few weeks later we let Scott attend another concert at that club with an older friend driving. Eventually he wanted to go to a different club, so he and I took a drive down there together beforehand to look over the neighborhood and parking situation.

     Within a few years Scott and his band performed at some of the smaller clubs in the city. For a few years he had a job that required him to drive all over the city, and we now ask him what he thinks of certain neighborhoods. Last month he turned twenty-one, and his musical interests are moving toward jazz. Recently he turned the tables, inviting me to go to a club with him to listen to a jazz band and we had a great time. No earplugs needed this time!


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