For whatever reason, children are the experts when it comes to asking, “Why?” It starts around age 2 with genuine inquisitions about how the world works, then peaks in the teenage years with genuine challenges of your authority.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that parents don’t pepper their children with their fair share of “why’s” as well. But for most parents, the question they really want answered isn’t a why, but a "what" — as in, "What do I do now?"
The fact is, the old saying is true: “Kids don’t come with an instruction manual.” But since that doesn’t bring much comfort, let me reassure you, they do come with some guarantees.
Children are likely going to rebel
From pushing curfew to experimenting with sex and drugs, at some point (probably in their teens), your child is likely going to push the limits on authority.
“Teens tend to rebel against authority as a natural means towards seeking independence,” said Ben Ashcraft, marriage and family therapist at A Time for Change Counseling Services. “This comes out so significantly as teens because the drive to make their own decisions is greater than ever before, yet they are still typically living under their parents' authority.”
In fact, according to Ashcraft, a little rebellion can actually be a good thing, since it helps teens learn to make decisions and live with the consequences.
“If they did not rebel, they would not be developing their sense of independence, which prepares them for adulthood,” he said.
Parents are going to make mistakes
Teens, of course, aren’t the only ones making mistakes.
Be a parent for long enough, and you’re bound to have a situation that you wish you had handled differently. Whether you came down too hard or were way too lenient, learning to be a good parent takes a lot of trial by error, and every parent makes at least a few mistakes.
If you think your teen hasn’t figured this out, you're fooling yourself. But what might surprise you is that, despite recognizing your weaknesses, most teens recognize the difficulty of being a parent and genuinely appreciate your effort.
“I know my parents are doing the best with what they’ve been given. I know my mom (and dad) feel the pressure to step up, but I think with what they’ve been given they do the best they can and they try hard,” said 17-year-old Kolbey Peterson.
“I think they’re doing all right. Do they make mistakes? Definetly, but I’m turning out OK,” added Brooklynn Gubler, age 15.
In other words, while they’re not likely to give you the same “all I expect out of you is the best you can do” talk that you give them, odds are, if you asked them, most teens would agree: Just do the best you can.
Fear can stymie progress
If you do nothing out of the fear that you’ll make things worse, things will rarely get better.
Understanding that we all make mistakes is a good thing. It can make it easier to bounce back after making a poor choice. But it also comes with a serious side effect: fear. Fear that we’ll make mistakes, and fear that making those mistakes will only make the situation worse than it already is.
Generally, it’s fear that motivates most parents to adopt the idea that “I’m not going to do anything else because I don’t want to push them away and make it worse.” As a result, a teen continues to make difficult decisions based only on the pushes they receive from peers and other non-parental influences.
The fact is, teenagers are still living at home with parents for a reason. They need the guidance, counsel and structure of parents to help them learn how to make proper decisions. In other words, they need someone to push them in the right direction.
Elder Larry Lawrence, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, put it this way: “Imagine for a moment that your daughter was sitting on the railroad tracks and you heard the train whistle blowing. Would you warn her to get off the tracks? Or would you hesitate, worried that she might think you were being overprotective? If she ignored your warning, would you quickly move her to a safe place? Of course you would! Your love for your daughter would override all other considerations. You would value her life more than her temporary goodwill.”
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So, in answer to the classic parenting question, “What do I do?” the best answer might just be, “Do something.” Do the best you can — anything, really — to make sure your child knows what you think and that you care. Whether it be a two-month grounding or a two-minute talk, just do something. Then, even though you make mistakes, when your child uses their favorite question to challenge your parental logic, at least you can confidently answer, “Because I love you, that’s why.”
Brandon Comstock is an instructor of religion at Hurricane High School seminary. He and his wife are the parents of two little boys, and are expecting their first daughter any day.