Rule One for Raising Well Behaved Teens, Be a Well Behaved Parent

As I entered the waiting room I could see his mother through the windowed doors, standing on the landing… smoking, and talking on her cell phone. She saw me too, and made an effort to get herself inside, but it took about five minutes. Randy looked at me with his all too familiar frustrated, angry face. We waited.

“I’ve had it with his selfishness,” she blurted, as she headed back toward my office. “It’s all about him. He doesn’t care that I have things to do. We’ve begged him to get to school on time. We’ve threatened and pleaded to get him to stop smoking weed, and drinking, but he just seems determined to ruin his life. Now the school thinks he needs counseling, and here I am, taking time out of MY day to drag him over here to speak with you. He’s self centered and obnoxious, and I am at my wits end. Tell me what to do.”

I’d be happy to tell her what to do, but first we need to determine what is possible. You see, we are all born with certain genetic predispositions, some are hard wired, like eye color or height, but others only get hard wired with repeated use. For example, my husband comes from a family of buckle winning calf ropers. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but maybe there is a degree of hand eye coordination while lunging around on a one thousand pound animal that this particular family has in their genetic make up. If my husband were to do this activity, a lot, he might be able to hard wire this skill into his circuitry easier than others. Unfortunately, these tendencies can be toward characteristics such as aggression, selfishness or enjoying a cigarette, as easily as roping a calf.

I want to remind you that we now know that the adolescent brain in not finished becoming “hard wired”. It is still malleable, so we have a chance to have an impact. And the important thing is to have the behaviors we like reinforced, so they get stronger, and the behaviors we don’t like ignored, so they can die out. What does that mean exactly? It means that every day until your child’s brain is finished with it’s wild developmental spurt, you want to keep an eye on what it is doing. Drag her to the family gatherings. Expect her to be polite, even if she doesn’t feel polite. Ask her how she sees herself in the future, what will she be doing? Will she need to go to college or roping school? Then help her make a plan.

I hope you’re sitting down, because here comes a hard truth. Who you are as a person is going to have a greater impact on your child than anything else. Does he see you going to work every day? Drinking in the afternoon? Smoking on my landing? Yelling at the family? That obnoxious saying about the apple not falling far from the tree is sooooo true, for the good and the not so good parts of us. I tell parents who are basically kind and honest that in spite of what is happening right now, their children will probably grow up to be kind and honest. And now I’m telling you, if you want children who work hard in school, work hard. If you want children who show consideration for mind-altering drugs, don’t drink and drive. If you want your daughter to marry a man who respects her, respect your wife. Good parents teach more by example than with words.

And speaking of respect, if you are clever, you will strive for being respected rather than being “one of the gang”, because effective parenting is based on respect. (Fear based parenting only works when the person who is feared is right there to be scary.) And just as a reminder, respect means acting toward your teen the way you would like him to act toward you. It means not making him wait if you want your time to be valued. It means setting reasonable limits, and being around enough to enforce them. And it means being mature enough to manage your own anger, so even in the middle of a tantrum you don’t yell back. If Randy’s mother wants his behavior to change, she might want to take a look at how she is acting.

Mohandas Gandhi said,

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

And it doesn’t get any better than that!