"Parents These Days": Setting clear expectations for a responsible, self-starting teenager

Guest post by Jess Foster

We hear it all too often: the “kids these days” lament that easily dismisses teenagers’ lack of initiative as a failing of their generation. They spend all day glued to a screen, we say. Kids today just don’t understand responsibility.

As a high school teacher I hear these types of sentiments often, but it wasn’t until my 3-year-old started going to nursery school that I truly understood. The realization came when his teachers began sending home worksheets with letters he had traced when I was only faintly aware he knew how to hold a pencil. As an educator and a hands-on parent who doesn’t shy away from crafts or educational activities, I was embarrassed. Shouldn’t I have known he was capable of the activities his teachers were doing with him?

I see a similar perspective when I talk to parents of teenagers. The desire to have their children do more is there, they just don’t know how to start. The problem is, kids go through developmental stages so quickly that as soon as we’re catching up to where they are, they’re moving onto the next one. It’s no wonder they can become teenagers who are able to dodge responsibility. But it’s not their faults they might lack ambition; it’s because the very generation disappointed in their behavior is raising them in a way that enables them to avoid it. I have to believe, even as I lose many battles to my young children, that we can do better to raise responsible, self-starting teenagers ready for adulthood. Here are some places to start:

Teach kids to create their own safety nets. Kids are much more capable than we perceive, especially when we still picture them as the tiny child who needed all our help. When they get older they tend to use this as an excuse, acting less capable rather than working through obstacles. Didn’t do a homework assignment? Fell behind on a long-term project? They wait us out, trusting that we’ll swoop in and complete the task for them, especially if that has been the established pattern. Rather than being the solution, it’s up to us as parents and teachers to help them find one themselves. By helping students through the process, and making them take charge, it better prepares them to face the next challenge. Eventually, they’ll go through these steps without needing help for every setback and become more proactive.

Embrace failure: Giving your child distance to let them problem-solve, especially when you can predict the mistakes, is one of the hardest things to do; but letting them experience consequences is the only way they’ll learn to anticipate and mitigate these kinds of outcomes. Let them fail while they’re in the supportive environment of your home and school. A “C” on an English paper in 8th grade (or even 11th) won’t make or break your child’s chances of getting into college and it will make her more productive and successful once she’s there.

Support the idea of balance. Let your child lead a conversation about where his/her interests lie, including subjects, sports, areas of interest, work, and, most of all: social activities. While school should be prioritized over social life, it takes all of those areas working together to achieve happiness. Help her reprioritize to maximize what she deems important while making sure there’s still room for responsibilities you feel she should meet.

Steer them towards appropriate challenges. I know many overachievers whose parents push them when they are already intrinsically motivated. With the escalation of anxiety in teenagers today, it would benefit teachers and parents to help students talk about taking on an appropriate amount of challenges (including extracurriculars). The goal being, they shouldn’t commit to more activities/classes than they can reasonably succeed.

Help them set long-term goals: We live in an age of immediate satisfaction. Teenagers are programmed to see rewards for less effort, not always seeing the path towards positive results over a longer period of time. Have conversations about their goals, again letting them lead the conversation. Whether its school related or more focused on making the little league baseball team, let them map out steps that help them achieve that ultimate goal. Eventually this conversation will turn towards college and life plans. By making goal setting a constant conversation, students will recognize that the Algebra class they see little value in at the moment has important applications later.

Make connections to their interests: Helping teens see the utility of Algebra doesn’t mean they’ll love it or even be overly successful. Connect the hard work to an interest (and most likely a talent) they have enthusiasm for. The focus on positives not only steers students places where they can truly be successful, but it also gives them the confidence to fare better in tough classes too. There are countless incidents I have experienced where the “troubled, unambitious” student suddenly became productive and integral in the classroom after he realized his talent in film-making, art or writing. Likewise, many student leaders emerge after they gain confidence on the basketball court or softball field. School doesn’t have to directly compete with talents and interests even if they aren’t academic. In fact, they often become resume builders for the college process and workforce. Goals outside of the classroom can become motivators when students can relate what classes can do for them in the future if they’re willing to suffer through more difficult lessons now.

Encourage, don’t mandate. At least not until it’s the last option. This becomes the hardest negotiation with teenagers, but they have figured out that they have a certain amount of autonomy even if they don’t have total freedom. Seeing your role as a supportive, albeit tough, manager rather than a prison guard will gain both the respect and the ear of your teenager.

By attempting to enact these steps we open up communication and model important skills for healthy goal setting—an important process if we are to pass on responsibility for our children’s lives to the rightful owners: the teenagers themselves.

Jess Foster is a playwright, dramaturg, and teacher whose work has been produced in New York, Providence, Boston, Washington DC, Albuquerque, and Iowa, where she earned her MFA from the Iowa Playwrights' Workshop. When she's not working in the theater or chasing her children around, Jess teaches English to high schoolers. She is originally from Maine and received her Bachelor's degree from Wheaton College; she currently resides outside of Boston with her wife and two sons.

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