I had a suspicion that how I parented my child as a toddler would have a lot of impact on how things went in his teens. There are similarities – the sudden increase in options and personal power, the need to test boundaries, the hormones undermining common sense… I thought how we handled that when he was small might be key in what came later. He’ll be eighteen this year.
I thought back to my own teens and to the things that made my friends miserable. It was all about the need to be heard and taken seriously, to have your feelings respected. How much we wanted not to be told that we did not know our own minds. How we wanted our emotional attachments taken seriously, our ambitions, distress and frustration as well.
So I started along those lines when he was small. I asked about preferences. I asked him what worked for him and what didn’t. I heard him out, and if he couldn’t have things his way, I explained why. I told him he was always entitled to ask questions, and always entitled to an explanation. I promised him that if I claimed I knew best I would produce some evidence for this. I made sure that what he felt was factored in, and that he knew he was being heard and taken seriously. I promised that I would only order him to do something if it was an emergency and he had to do what I said right then with no time for explanations. Which meant that if I gave on order, I expected it to be followed unquestioningly. There have been a few instances of physical peril, and I have never abused that deal.
We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always been in charge because that’s what it means to parent a young human. He’s always had the definitive say on how he feels about things, what he wants and doesn’t want. Of course along the way we’ve had the odd strop over things that didn’t seem fair, and I’ve stopped and talked through why they might be fair after all, or why they might be shit but that’s how it goes sometimes. That being an adult means taking responsibility for the dull things, the crappy things, the things you don’t want to have to bother with and that your freedom and your responsibility are closely interlinked.
He’s never rebelled against me, because there was never much authority to rebel against. I’ve never claimed to know what was best for him, I just advise based on what I do know. We’ve got this far with no blazing rows, no angry outbursts from either of us. Neither of us has said anything we have any reason to regret. I’m really proud of that, and of the kind of relationship we have at this point in his life.
With university on the horizon we’re negotiating the next set of changes, working what he needs to know, clarifying what he’s responsible for and what backup will be available.
It would be easy to run roughshod over the ideas, feelings and preferences of a child. It is often more convenient to ignore that sort of thing. It may be satisfying to the parental ego to take total authority, demand obedience and assert control, but these are, I feel certain, the things that pave the way to an angry, fight-laden teenage. Respect is something we learn, and being respected is a really good way of learning how to respect others.