When I was a teenager I had a curfew of 11:00.
I don’t know why I complied, and I’m not quite sure what my mother would have done if I hadn’t (I don’t think she’s sure, either). Yet while I may have grumbled about it, I was always home by 11.
I think it all boiled down to this: I didn’t want to disappoint Mom. She had high expectations of me, though not the kind that drive you to despair. She knew what I was capable of becoming, and she wanted me to do my best. And, with a few exceptions, I tried.
All parents have expectations of their kids, but increasingly they are expectations of an entirely different sort.
They go something like this: “Well, all kids will drink/use drugs/have sex. What are you going to do?” But there’s no reason to be so pessimistic. Here are the facts: most teens are still virgins. Most teens do not go to keg parties. Most teens do not use drugs. In fact, the rate of these behaviours is actually going down. Kids were more likely to have sex when parents were teens! Such behaviour is not inevitable, despite what the media make it seem.
And I find even many Christian parents giving in to this defeatism! Rebecca tells a story in her book Why I Didn’t Rebel about a strange interaction she had with a youth group parent when she was 16. The mom asked her about her future plans, and she explained her aim to go to university in Ottawa, and eventually get an apartment with friends. “With your boyfriend?” the mom laughed. “Of course not!” Rebecca replied. Why would she even think Rebecca would live with someone? My daughter was flabbergasted, but that was how this woman assumed all teens would be.
What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?
I sometimes wonder if our defeatism encourages that behaviour. Perhaps the reason that many kids do engage in potentially dangerous behaviours is that we tell them that’s what we expect. We may yell at them when they do something stupid, but we don’t take steps to prevent it. All they’ve seen is our “what can you do?” attitude.
And many parents aren’t only sighing about their apparent hopelessness at controlling their kids; they’re actually encouraging their kids’ dangerous behaviours. They invite other teens over to their house and serve alcohol so that “at least I know where my kid is.” (Never mind what the other parents whose underage kids you are getting drunk think). Then there are the parents who bring their young daughters to the doctor to get birth control. Their concern is not always that their daughter has begun to sleep around; often she hasn’t. But you never know what she’ll do, so let’s make sure she won’t get pregnant. Once you’ve taken that trip to the doctor, though, how can you turn around and tell your daughter “don’t have sex”, or at least “do so discriminantly”? You’ve already shown her that you expect her to sleep around. Once she’s in a relationship and confused about what she should do, she’ll remember that you expect her to say yes.
Having rules gives kids a safety net so that they have a way out.
If they’re at a party that’s getting out of hand, they can always make the excuse “well, I have to leave or my mother’s going to ground me for life”. If, on the other hand, the kids are all at your house and you’ve opened up the liquor cabinet, it’s much harder for your teen to leave.
Maybe we need to try a different approach. I remember a comment my mother made in passing when I was 14. She had worked at a pregnancy home for young teens for a time, and she said the biggest heartbreak in her life would be if I ended up in that situation. She told me there was no reason why I should. That comment stayed with me. I was sure that if I did anything like that I would break her heart. And I didn’t want to do that.
It wasn’t only that my mother expected things of me. That was only one half of the equation. My mother also loved me. We can’t expect kids just to do what we want out of the goodness of their hearts, without ever deserving it. But if we’re steadfast in our love for them, and coherent in our expectations of them, they’ll understand.
We can’t eliminate the risk that they might choose poorly.
Kids still have their own minds. Had I become pregnant, it would not have been my mother’s fault; it would have been mine. But just because we can’t completely prevent destructive behaviour doesn’t mean we should give up.
Most kids don’t want to disappoint their parents. But they can’t disappoint you if you’ve never expected anything in the first place.
In Why I Didn’t Rebel, Rebecca wrote about the difference between fear-based parenting and faith-based parenting.
She quotes something that I used to say to her all the time:
Why shouldn’t I expect you to make good decisions? I expect myself to make good decisions, so why wouldn’t I expect that of you when we have the same Holy Spirit inside of us?
What fear-based parenting does, though, is blind parents to what their kid is doing in the present, and can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. After telling the story of Monica, who grew up to a mom who was always teasing her about the mistakes she was going to make, Rebecca ends the chapter like this:
Because of her parents’ expectations, rebellion seemed like a natural part of growing up to Monica. It seemed like the mature thing to do, since it was treated as a rite of passage in her home: First time you sneak out to make out with a boy. First high school party. First time throwing up because you’ve had too much beer. These were all landmarks along the path to adulthood. Naturally, when she hit her teenage years and desperately wanted to grow up, like every teenager, Monica followed the path put before her….
The great news us that the flip side is also true. [Others of us] had parents who led a faith-based family. We received praise and recognition for doing well not only in things like sports or academics, but in personal virtues as well. We felt our parents believed in us and that they expected greatness because they thought we were capable of it. And you know what? We’re all really grateful to our parents for believing in us. The teenage years are hard for kids as they’re going through them. Having a parent who has your back and believes in you can make all the difference.