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Teens - Provide and Advocate

May 25, 2002
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This article is the last of a five-part series designed to share parents' experiences with raising teenagers. Our articles follow the outline of a study headed by A. Rae Simpson, Ph.D., at the Center for Health Communication, Harvard School of Public Health.* Dr. Simpson’s report analyzed a broad range of recent research on teens. It provides a list of the developmental tasks of adolescents, as well as an outline of the five basics of parenting teens. These basics are: 1) love and connect, 2) monitor and observe, 3) guide and limit, 4) model and consult, and 5) provide and advocate.

Provide and advocate is summed up in the study: “Teens need parents to make available not only adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter, and health care, but also a supportive home environment and a network of caring adults.”

As Dr. Simpson explains, “…teens also need parents to help provide ‘social capital,’ that is, to seek out relationships within the community that supplement what the immediate family can or even should provide in the way of resources, guidance, training, and support.” Careful choosing of schools and youth programs is one way parents advocate for their teens. The study notes, “Even in communities with significant resources, some researchers observe that typical middle schools, with their larger size, greater departmentalization, and decreased student-teacher contact, are not a good match for the developmental tasks of early adolescence.”

“Creating opportunities for teens to develop meaningful competencies” is another aspect of this concept, as is seeking out people and programs as resources for your teen. These strategies, the report notes, can help to counter the dearth of opportunities for lasting adult-teen relationships in today’s culture.

Please tell us about your experiences raising teens. We have much to learn from thought-provoking and thorough studies such as Dr. Simpson’s, as well as from listening to each other’s stories. 

Here are some parents' experiences with the “provide and advocate” basic:

From Laura J.:

When you have a child with learning disabilities, you are frequently told to “be an advocate” for your child, and I have certainly tried. For years, I talked to each teacher my son had at school, church or special class, explaining the nature of Nate’s learning disability and trying to help him or her understand Nate’s strengths and weaknesses. Some teachers were cooperative, while others were more resistant to making any accommodations. My husband and I attended every school meeting about his Individual Education Plan, working to be sure that he received the services and attention that he needed.

When Nate started high school, I wasn’t certain how to continue my advocacy. Parental involvement wasn’t as accepted at this level--how could I explain Nate’s idiosyncrasies to the many adults in his expanded world without embarrassing him?

The first week of ninth grade provided an answer. One of Nate’s new LD teachers had her students write letters to hand out to each of his or her teachers. Through the letter, Nate introduced himself, described his learning disability and explained the methods he can use to overcome his problems. He told each teacher about his good oral abilities, his desire to work hard and be responsible, and his intense difficulties with handwriting and organization. He asked each teacher for patience.

The letter was a powerful message to me that Nate needed to learn to be his own advocate now. Yes, his father and I would continue to stay near and watchful, but it was time for Nate to learn how to approach teachers, explain his situation and ask for the special help he needs. Advocating for oneself is just another of the many responsibilities a teenager needs to practice as he or she approaches adulthood.

From V.Lee S.:

As my daughter Lynn approached her teen years, I was struggling to provide for the two of us. After being at home and homeschooling for twenty years--Lynn had two older brothers-- my marriage had ended suddenly and contentiously.

During my years at home, my friendships with several other at-home women and their families had grown strong and deep. These friends and family have helped me through many times--listening, helping to care for Lynn in the earlier years, taking us to concerts, buying Lynn soccer uniforms, loaning me tuition money and believing in us.

Immediately after the divorce, Lynn entered public school for the first time (she was ten), and I (at age fifty) went to work in a doctor’s office, processing health insurance forms. Our financial situation was precarious, even scary. We had moved out of our family home, and for the first two years all I did was cope with the basics of living day to day. Friends helped me move and find inexpensive housing (a log house on a river), install a woodstove, find free firewood. To reduce grocery bills, we grew most of our own vegetables--and flowers, too, keeping in mind what my mother used to say, a penny for a loaf of bread, a penny for a bunch of hyacinths. I worked hard to provide for Lynn and me. In addition to the office job, I also worked as a newspaper reporter and played in a string trio at weddings. Lynn worked hard, too, doing well in school and doing her share of chores pretty willingly.

Eventually, I began to realize that to provide for more than just the basics I would have to pursue a graduate degree. I decided that to work toward a more fulfilling and secure future for both of us I would have to go into debt by assuming an almost unimaginable amount of student loans to pay for tuition as well as our living expenses. After calculating an anticipated increase in salary, the risk was cost-effective. Believing in my calculations, however, did not keep me from waking up at nights in a cold sweat of fear. Fortunately, things always looked better when the sun rose in the morning with the birds singing on the river.

As I made the long two-hour-and-forty-five-minute daily commute to study and do an internship in a metropolitan area, I began to see more opportunities for Lynn there as well as she approached high school. She loved the country and our community on the river, though, and I realized that there would have to be a strong draw for her if we were going to leave our rural community. One of Lynn’s passions was soccer, and she needed to play in a more competitive league. Soccer proved to be that strong draw, and when friends offered us space in their home, we accepted gratefully. After six transitional months, we decided to stay where the soccer opportunities were so much better, and near our friends who had helped us make this decision. We found an apartment nearby them and the high school. I completed my graduate degree and when I had to travel for my job, I knew my friends would be there for Lynn.

Lynn played soccer with an intensity and dedication that, I believe, came not only from who she is, but from what I had had to become. We were both focused and becoming good at something we cared about. Some weeks, Lynn and I spent as many as forty hours on the soccer field, and during her practices, I wrote my master’s thesis. Eventually I was hired permanently doing work I love, and yes, my salary calculations were eventually accurate. Lynn became a soccer goalkeeper on her high school varsity team, a travel team and a semi-professional women’s soccer team.

As I became aware that part of providing and advocating for my daughter meant that I was modeling behavior for her, I realized that there was one more item of unfinished business--child support. I knew that she was not receiving what she was entitled to, and so I went to court when she was a junior in high school. I went without a lawyer because I wanted to use the money we had for Lynn’s soccer training and equipment instead of legal services. The judge ruled in our favor, increasing the amount of child support she received by almost seven times. This money, in addition to Lynn’s working a few hours a week throughout high school, and my salary increases, means that in spite of loan payments, we are beginning to live comfortably, and I am beginning to save for my retirement.

Lynn is now a junior in college and a soccer goal-keeper at a Division I university. Her interest in pursuing professional soccer is being replaced by a desire to perform the music she writes and records, and by a desire to pursue graduate work. I have a career in a field that I love, and friends and family who have been with me all along the way. I am grateful for how well things have worked out.

From Thérèse B.:

Some years ago a friend of mine told me that one thing she wanted to do as a mother was to make sure her child always knew she was on his side, an advocate so to speak. This made me think about the line between those parents who really are advocates for their children and those who insist their children can do no wrong. We all know parents of both kinds.

Parents who are advocates have children who are not afraid to come to them with problems. These children grow to be teens who are confident in their abilities and who are able to be advocates for themselves because their parents have provided them with tools to do so. By extension, they know how to be advocates for others who may need assistance. Children who, in their parents’ eyes, can do no wrong are menaces to society; they are not good company.

When one of our teens was in high school, there was a very unjust situation developing around a sports team. Both my husband and I spoke up and exposed what was happening. Other parents told us that they were afraid to do what we were doing. I was shocked at such cowardice but more so at the example they were setting. These parents were not acting as advocates for their teens, and their teens were not learning how to be advocates for themselves or others. Providing teens with advocacy tools helps them to matriculate successfully into college and/or the working world where mom and dad are not readily available.

From Paul O.:

In the summer of 1992, I participated in my church’s annual summer mission project for Habitat for Humanity. A group of approximately fifty teens and adult advisors traveled from our church in northern Virginia to the panhandle of Maryland. During our week there we worked in several homes alongside the owners, building a ramp for a handicapped occupant, insulating a bedroom for four children and painting the barn of an elderly person. This experience was immensely gratifying to me, and I looked forward to the time when my two young daughters could accompany me on a Habitat mission project.

Through the ensuing years my daughters listened to the sermons given by the church youth group members who had participated in the missions. The messages came through loud and clear: helping others who have so little, doing God’s work and giving back just some of what we have been given is really what life is about. And doing all that with your friends, those you care about and who care about you, who you pray with and break bread with every Sunday evening, makes the experience that much better.

Last summer my older daughter Jen was able to join the Habitat mission project. Off she went with the group on a Saturday morning to Smyth County, Virginia, while business obligations kept me from heading to the work site until later in the week.

When I joined the group a few days later, I was so pleased to hear the reports of how Jen handled herself on the mission trip--how she immediately went to work and devoted herself to the work at hand, how she interacted with everyone, how polite and pleasant she was. I watched as she worked, realizing that I really hadn’t taught her a lot of skills over the years. But it didn’t seem to matter; she tried everything she could, just wanting to help and be a part of it all as the house we were building took shape. The joy that gave her, the feeling of having made a difference in someone else’s life, is what I had wanted so much for her to have. I could see how everything I had said over the years really had sunk in, even when it sometimes looked like the words weren’t taking hold.

This coming summer, just a few short months from now, our group will travel to Lynchburg, Virginia, for another Habitat project. This time my younger daughter Kim will accompany Jen and me, and my dream will come true. Both my daughters will have the opportunity to be a part of a group helping others in need, to contribute something of themselves to others.

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*Simpson, A. Rae (2001). “Raising Teens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action.” Boston: Center for Health Communication, Harvard School of Public Health. 

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