Never in my life have I felt so challenged than when my kids were young. The tantrums. The crying. The sleep schedules. The picky eating.
That is, until they were teenagers.
The parenting is harder. The issues are bigger. And the kids are taller. Which leads me to say what I was told when my kids were young and what I tell young parents now that I am old: “Just wait until they’re teenagers.”
Looking back, I wish I had done a few things differently. Like everyone else, I had no manual. I truly think I tried my best, but there were times when I just got tired. Had I known the end product of my parental slacking off, I would have put on my big-girl panties and dug in for the long haul.
That said, I offer you younger moms some advice from someone who has been in the trenches of toddlerhood and is now living the turmoil of teenagedom. As with any self-help book, take what you want and leave the rest. What worked (or didn’t work) for me may not work (or work) for you.
Don’t be their buddy.
It’s tempting. You want to give them everything and do fun stuff and be cool and show them how much you love them. But really, they don’t need the first three things – they just need the last one. And maybe a little of the second one. But remember – you don’t birth your friends. You don’t tend to your friends’ personal hygiene, or burp them, or drive them around in the back seat of your car (normally). These are little people whom you are raising to survive in the big, bad world. They’ll make their own friends, and until they’re adults, you shouldn’t be one of them.
Teach them responsibility.
Overall, my kids are responsible, but I did screw up in a few areas. It became easier to pick up after them than to yell at them repeatedly to pick up after themselves. I was so concerned with what they ate that I never let them loose in the kitchen (read: I fixed all their meals so now they pretty much don’t know how to make squat.) I taught them how to earn and save money, but not necessarily how to budget it. I was so uber-responsible myself (and a bit controlling) that I took it all on my shoulders and gave them none. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe because it’s hard. It’s time consuming. It takes patience and it takes letting your children make mistakes. For some reason, I couldn’t do that very well, and now I’m paying the price – and they will, too.
Let them fail.
Better do it now when it’s the little stuff than later when it’s the big stuff. Don’t do what I did and be the one always trying to calm the waters – let them have a hand in it. It may mean getting a zero on their homework because they forgot their book, versus driving back up to school to pick it up. It may mean letting them talk to the teacher about trouble they’re having in class versus you setting up a meeting. It may even mean them failing a class because they didn’t take the steps necessary to get help versus micro-managing their homework page every night. Or not getting to play on the team because they refused to practice at home, rather than mom bartering with the coach to put them in. Saving your kids from every disappointment now is NOT going to do them any good when you can’t save them later, like when that girl breaks his heart, or he doesn't get that job, or when he can't get into that college. It’s called life and they need to learn to deal with both the good and the bad, and as much as you want to, you can’t and shouldn’t bail them out of everything.
Look for signs
When my kids were little, the pediatrician told me that they were more likely to act up right before they learned a new skill. The frustration of trying to figure out a new task like talking or walking or writing was enough to shift their personality into the red zone. I believe that holds true even as they get older. If your adolescent is suddenly jumping down your throat, or spending a lot of time alone, or acting down for an unknown reason, he’s probably a teenager. Just kidding. He may be a teenager but don’t always hang your hat on that. It’s a tough world we live in today, so do a little investigating. Check in with him to see if everything’s OK with school, work or friends. Pay attention to what he or she is doing and saying. Ask a couple of low-key questions. Talk to teachers, moms and other kids if you need to. Get outside help if you need to. Really, it’s OK.
They’re not the greatest things since sliced bread, but they’re no slouches, either.
It’s tough to walk this fine line. When they were little, I kept hearing about “wounding a child’s spirit”, so everything they did, from finger painting to ball throwing to pooping in the potty was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life. As my challenging son got older and I started riding him about grades, his hair, his friends and his lack of motivation, I’m sure he thought he could do nothing right. Catch yourself before you overly-praise – it loses its punch after awhile. On the other hand, constant criticism can screw with their already-fragile self-esteem when what they really want is to find their own way yet still make you proud of them.
Be their biggest fan
This is different than the above. This means letting them know that they are loved no matter what. This is loving them enough to discipline them, letting “I hate you!” roll off your back and not respond in kind, to advocate for them when you really need to, to let go with love and to learn how to stay out of sight yet off in the wings “just in case.” It’s making decisions that make you cry, losing sleep because you don’t know what to do, and cherishing when they let you hug them or kiss them on top of their heads. It’s letting them know sometimes without saying it that you’re there for them if they really need you. Because they do need you – even if they think they don’t. But in that same breath, they need you to help them grow into self-sustaining adults, and that means breaking out that tough love sooner rather than later.
Take my word for it. You’re welcome.