Trust is Timeless
As a recently retired pediatrician, I am often asked if it is harder now to raise children than in the past. I think most people assume I will quickly respond yes.
Surely it seems like the times have never been more dangerous and complex---managing social media and defending one’s social reputation can be a 24/7 job, the rare but serious occurrence of school shootings, legalization in some states of marijuana, the sexualization of our culture, and the erosion of decency in many of our daily person to person interactions.
But as a pediatrician and father, I doubt that it is “harder.” Being watchful of your child and adolescent’s safety has always been a priority. The goal of nurturing their development to become contributing adults in their local communities has not changed.
Yes, social media can be a tool for hostility and bullying but it can also connect individuals when augmented by face to face contact so that real relationships are formed. As parents, we can “teach” our children how to use social media safely and productively. It is important that home is a “safe space” and a time for children to step away from school and the need to be “on” socially. Some limits on social media are necessary--- like having all phones turned off at bedtime.
It is dismaying that most schools now have active shooter drills. In the 1950’s when I attended school, we had similar drills for air raids. How our children respond to these drills and the rare terrible events is related to how we as adults respond. Managing our own anxieties allows us to parent effectively in these moments.
The use of drugs and alcohol are different today with some states legalizing marijuana. It is naïve to assume that age restrictions protect children from increased exposure but I do not think this has really changed over my years of practice.
It is reasonable to say that sex has been around for some time. In fact, over my years in practice, sexuality activity in the pediatric population might actually have come down a little. Information is routinely given in a pediatric office about birth control, sexually transmitted infections, and reasons to delay sexual behavior until adolescents are emotionally equipped for real intimacy.
And as for decency and respect between individuals, this has always been a priority for parents. Sometimes our society is derailed by the behavior of prominent individuals in politics and entertainment. These events receive far too much coverage by our media. We as a society would be well-served if the media spent as much time highlighting the positive examples of human kindness occurring daily in our communities.
So where did I find parents and their children struggle the most during my thrity-five years in practice? And was it indeed harder now or business as usual in the parenting arena? I found TRUST to be at the center of the adolescent years. It was the “job” of an adolescent to bend, break, or ignore household rules. And it was the parents “job” to consistently enforce those “rules”. I really do not think this has changed over the years but when trust was eroded, things often did not go well.
There is often an unrecognized conflict when parenting rules and decisions for an adolescent involve safety versus control. It can be hard at times to tease out the difference, but parents are navigating in a far safer territory when they draw the lines about real safety concerns. Imagine a teen requested permission to go to a theme park on a Friday night with their friends. Saying NO--ends the discussion (Control). We may be worried about safety, but not having been to that park in years, we really do not know if it is unsafe. Perhaps a better answer would be to allow the adolescent to go but indicate that you plan to go to the park, separately, as well to see for yourself if it is unsafe. Safety is a real concern and a place where parents should assert their authority. But you might find the theme park safety issue just part of your own anxiety and an excellent place for your child to make his or her own decisions.
But when adolescents inevitably bend, break, or ignore household rules, something has to give--TRUST. Usually there are repercussions and, at times, punishment. It is always best if the adolescent knows what the consequences will be in advance. This avoids parents’ making it all up on the fly. “Grounding” seems to be the “go-to” choice of most parents.
But does grounding really work? Some kids care little when things are taken away. Some will say they have nothing left to lose, so the behavior continues. Studies suggest that adolescents, in contrast to adults, are more motivated to seek rewards than to avoid punishment. It reminds me of the time my son inadvertently asked two different girls to a school dance and got grounded intentionally in order to avoid having to explain his mistake to the girls. (Of course, he asked us for permission to go to the after-dance parties—did he think we were idiots?) If you are truly trying to motivate an adolescent to make better decisions, consider rewarding them with car privileges, a few dollars, or lifting a grounding period a day or two early.
When denied the opportunity to correct, or learn from, the ill-advised behavior, the adolescent has no means to regain your trust and develop the very adult skills and judgment you wish them to acquire in the first place. Navigating the relationship with an adolescent can be difficult enough without your making it harder by needing to police your child. When raising my two children, though it was never easy to fall asleep before their curfew eventually I was able to do so after they demonstrated their maturity to make good, safe decisions. This did not occur right away, but it was well worth the wait (and anxiousness).
Some adolescent mistakes involve more than breaking household rules. Some of are truly misdeeds, like stealing or vandalism, where someone or something was harmed. Logical consequences and reparation are more appropriate in these circumstances. Apologizing to the injured party and coming to an agreement on working the transgression off are best practices when such situations occur. If a law has been broken and the legal system is involved, there is a temptation to use whatever influence you might have to “get them off.” I can recall several situations when this seemed on some level to condone poor behavior and may have contributed to additional mistakes and legal problems.
As I’ve said, trust is at the core of the adolescent-parent relationship. There were countless times in my office where the issue of trust came up. The teen breaks the rules and the parent responds by threats, invasions of privacy, and guilt trips. The relationship is breaking down and needs to be reset. How can this be accomplished in a way that helps your child?
In my book, Some Assembly Required, I share the following list with my readers.
Stop talkingat each other, screaming and threatening, and start communicating. Try to decide with your child what trust will look like in your home and what you expect of each other.
.Negotiate the rules together and get to a better place. Recognize the difference between safety and control. There should be more give than take on your part if the latter is primarily at work.
Motivate with rewards, not punishment. When expectations are being met, give your child praise and new privileges when deserved.
As a parent, be prepared for bumps in the road. When the next “mistake” occurs, do not compound it by going back to your old behaviors of being a frustrated parent, and further breaking down whatever trust you have built.
When mistakes are made, do not compound the situation by “enabling” the bad behavior. When an adult steps-in to make the situation “right” or takes on the responsibility or blame themselves, it robs the adolescent of a learning experience.
Find an interest to share or make time for a one-on-one breakfast to learn about your adolescent’s interests that you do not share. Seeing each other as people (though not best friends) is realistic and rewarding.
Even when there is conflict, make sure your child knows that they are loved unconditionally.
Eat dinner as a family as often as possible, if not nightly. I hope this has been part of your family routine all along. Whether the resulting discussions are far reaching or trivial is less important than the face to face time together.
Is parenting more difficult today than in years past? I think not. The issues and challenges of building trust remain very similar. Remember, do your best and accept that. Now sit back and watch your child grow---you have the best seat in town.