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Teens - Monitor and Observe

February 25, 2002
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This is the second in a series designed to share parents' experiences with raising teenagers. A study from the Harvard University Center for Health Communication - "Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action," by A. Rae Simpson, Ph.D., - outlined five basics of parenting teens, and in this article we’re addressing the second “basic ”-- monitor and observe.

From Susan D.:

One of the most difficult aspects of parenting teens is finding the balance between “letting go” and still keeping a watchful eye. I am learning to become an undercover mom--providing my teens enough space to grow into young adults, while keeping my mom-radar set to “ON.”

Although a fifteen-and eighteen-year-old may not need close supervision, I have not stopped parenting. My teens let me know where they’ll be, who they are with, and they follow our agreement that they’ll phone to let us know of any changes in their plans. I frequently ask about school--how things are going, if I can see the special physics project (and if he would explain it to me!), what forms need to be filled out for college orientation. I try to help my daughter with her French homework (even though it’s been many years since my high school classes).

I know my teens’ friends and try to get to know their parents. I regularly take the time to draw my son’s and daughter’s friends into conversations, which is a great way to get a sense of who they are. When I drop off my daughter at a friend’s house or the movie theater, I make a point of chatting with the other moms and dads I meet. Since both my children are in the school band, numerous activities throughout the year allow me to connect with the other band parents. The compliments on my teens’ behavior I get from other adults is one way I know they have been practicing what they have been taught all these years. It feels great to hear those compliments. I, too, make a point to let other parents know if their teens have impressed me with their manners or the way they handled a certain situation.

From Jody M.:

There is nothing more annoying than getting disconnected in the middle of a conversation. It has happened to all of us, I’m sure. We are just about to get the details on something so important, and then “click”--the line goes dead. It’s frightening to think we could be that easily “disconnected” from our children. For that reason, I tend to focus on regular “maintenance of the system.”

I attempt to be in touch often. Chatting over dinner is not enough. At bedtime, I spend time on each child’s bed, talking about his day and listening to what’s going on in his world. I try to stay current on what my sons are reading, watching and playing. I figure if I understand where they are in life, it will be easier to communicate.

The other trick I use often is to go on “lunch dates” with each of my children individually. I pick one up from school--unexpectedly--and take him to lunch. It seems to be a comfortable time for each one to share, because we are out to lunch as “friends,” in a sense. The “party-line” style just isn’t great. If someone can get disconnected when there are just two, how much more likely when there are more “on the line”! That’s how we keep our system running-- constant maintenance, frequent upgrades and only one guy on the line at a time!

From Patrick J.:

Our town has a big evening parade to celebrate Halloween. One year, my young almost-teen was eager to meet a group of her classmates along the parade route. Several parents called us to say that they couldn’t hang around at the parade with their kids, so could we keep an eye on all of them? My wife willingly agreed, and then came up with a good excuse to stay home. I was sent off to be the specified adult with an expanding group of kids, only some of whom I knew.

My daughter would be unhappy and embarrassed if I stuck too close to her, so I followed the group of about twelve pre-teens at a distance of twenty to thirty feet as they meandered through the throngs of people watching the parade. I made sure I knew where they were and what they were doing, but stayed back enough to give them room for private conversation and the feeling of independence. It wasn’t easy in the crowd, and for a while I ended up keeping an eye on them through the parade as they sat on a wall on the opposite side of the street from me. I had a few frantic moments when the amorphous group started to head in two different directions, but I caught up in time to herd the splinter group back. Another challenge was that some parents had planned to pick their children up at a certain corner at a certain time, but I was the only one connected to our parade-watching group that seemed interested in actually showing up at the appointed corner.

All the kids had a great time. My daughter was invigorated, and I was exhausted. The other parents thanked me for my careful monitoring, and I told my wife it will be her turn this October!

From Margie J.:

A friend told me she couldn’t attend her intermediate school-age son’s football game because he didn’t want her to come. Having had six kids in year-round sports activities since they were six, I laughed that off and told her my kids never had the option to ask me to make myself scarce at their games. I was there from their first soccer game when they were six (when they wanted us there) until the last pitch of the final high school baseball game. If they don’t see me at a game, it doesn’t slip away unmentioned. Chances are I am just out of their sight, watching from the car on a chilly fall day. But almost always there, one way or another. There at the house for a fifth-grade class party, there on the zip-wire at Camp Highroads, on the bus bound for the state cheerleading com-petition, manning the snack bar, there at the all-night graduation party, just there.

They have always known I will be a fixture in their lives. At home, I know their friends’ favorite foods and make sure I am stocked up on them. I want our home to be a “fun-friendly” atmosphere so there is typically music and food when friends are over. When the video goes in, it has been “pre-approved” to meet family standards because we are all there to watch it and offer commentary. The open floor plan of our house and the lack of privacy that is a by-product of a large family often work in our favor when they are dating.

From Nelia O.:

One of the characteristics of adolescent behavior I’d forgotten all about is the lack of experience in planning ahead and, correspondingly, a very high tolerance for spontaneity. I’m a plan-ahead person myself, and when my now-seventeen-year-old daughter and her friends began driving and going places together without adult accompaniment, the constant changes of plan drove me nuts.

Clare has five or six close girlfriends, and they love to plan “girls’ nights” to the movies, the theater, dinner, concerts, and sleepovers at each other’s houses. It took me a while to figure out that when six teenage girls plan one evening out, there will be at least twelve or fifteen major revisions, beginning at the moment of departure and continuing throughout the evening.

Some parents seem to feel that once they’ve assigned a curfew for the evening, they’ve done their part, but I have never been comfortable with this. After finding out a few times that Plan A, to which I’d given my permission, later had morphed into Plan B, to which I had not consented, my husband and I finally formulated two house rules: 1) Before you leave for an evening out, you must file a detailed “flight plan,” and 2) If even minor elements of the plan change later for any reason, you must call.

We explained to our daughter that it’s our job to know more than just when she’ll be back, but also whom she’s with, where she is and what she’s doing. These last three things concern me a lot more than the precise hour of her return. She’s been very compliant about calling, and it eases my mind when she reports in during the course of her evenings out. I’ve heard the tales, though, of parents trusting too much to their cell-phone-toting teens, who could be anywhere when they call in to say they’re “sleeping over at Amy’s.” So, while I trust my daughter, I do make a point to ask questions the next day. “How was the movie?” “What did you order at the restaurant?”

My daughter does not seem to resent all this monitoring and enjoys telling us about how much fun she’s had with her friends. She’s also become the unofficial organizer for her group of friends, the one who makes the extra phone calls to find out who can come, who can drive, which movie, which theater and so on.

I also have a sixteen-year-old son who is much less of a gadabout than his sister. It’s not hard to know where he is, since he’s pretty content to hang out at home a lot of the time. My concern in his case, though, is his Internet usage. In general, I think the Internet has been a great tool for him. He’s a thoughtful kid who reads a lot of news stories, political commentary and arts criticism on line. I tend to read some of the same stuff, and we have had some really interesting conversations about articles we’ve both come across online. The Internet has also been very useful to him in his schoolwork.

However, the dark side of the Internet so appalls me that I do use the history function to monitor the sites he’s been to. It really bugged him, at first, that I didn’t just trust him not to check out porn sites. I finally told him, “I believe you when you say you aren’t breaking our rules about what you can read and look at. But, if you were, would you be likely to tell me so?” The answer to that was pretty obvious, and he hasn’t complained since about my checking.

I’ve never come across anything too bloodcurdling, but occasionally I’ve been moved to ask what he was looking for at a particular site, or to point out why I found something objectionable. We’ve also had some valuable conversations that I don’t think we’d have otherwise had about sexuality, attitudes toward women and the addictive nature of pornography.

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