Enough with the nicknames. It’s time for parents to trust in their teens’ abilities.
Snowplow parenting. Helicopter dads. Tiger moms. Lawn mower parents. College admissions scandals and a plethora of articles proclaiming the death of self-reliance in adolescents. I can’t help wondering if there would be quite so much hand-wringing over our young people if we adults let them forge their own paths more often. If we let them craft their own college essays while remaining available to talk through ideas.
I admit I think the world of teenagers. I am pro-teenager. I am also pro-parent. After 30 years as an adolescent medicine specialist, I know teenagers are super-learners who are more capable than we think. Many are wrestling in real time with their own moral compass and their own sense of right and wrong. They are idealistic and passionate. They are compassionate. Adolescence includes struggling to make sense of the senseless and imagining a saner reality. We rely on them to do so. We must shelve the worn and incorrect view that most adolescents are impulsive, thoughtless, or selfish.
See them as they are instead of seeing your fears about them. Stop undermining them. I recommend a parenting style known as “balanced parenting.” (if you must have a nickname, I call it “Lighthouse Parenting.”) Show love and warmth while still establishing boundaries around safety. Make sure teens understand what is and what’s not acceptable, and why. Listen to them, allow for two-way dialogue, but also act as a sounding board. Help guide them toward opportunities that allow for healthy risk-taking. And yes, let them fail. When they do, be there for them. Like a lighthouse, be a constant beacon on the shore, helping them avoid the rocks, but letting them navigate their own journey.
Society has a role to play, too. Instead of fixating on the sins of parents who quash the potential of their children by over-parenting, let’s open our eyes to the real capabilities of teens.
Some may say teens have bad judgment, and they don’t listen to their parents anyway. And actually, there is a developmental reason why teens must push their parents away for a few years. To begin thinking of themselves as individuals, teens must see their parents in a critical light and practice separating. This temporary - and sometimes painful - phase is critical for adolescent development and it’s nature’s way of signaling parents should pull back on the helicoptering.
Instead of hovering, parents can role model behavior they want teens to emulate through their own lives and work. Integrity. Perseverance. Honesty. Easier said than done, for sure. But we have much to learn from teenagers’ growth and learning, even if it feels scary.
I grew up in the shadow of the 1960s and ’70s, committed to changing what many viewed as an imperfect system. This is happening again now. It may be tempting to look at today’s teenagers — individually immersed in their screens — and write off their shared sense of responsibility and activism. That’s a mistake. Teenagers are changing the world, but they’re doing it differently: using technology, instant access to information, and the powerful tribalism of social media to mobilize against injustice and to protect the planet. Examples abound, from student-led demonstrations towards preventing gun violence following the Parkland, Fla., school shootings, to the Youth Climate Strike, to school children in Philadelphia rallying against mandatory metal detectors in high schools. Young people are harnessing the power of social media to amplify debate on topics, including #MeToo, DACA, Black Lives Matter, and many more.
We must start a pro-teenager movement as we live in a world that too often undermines youth. We mustn’t waste this critical window of development. Adolescence is a time of opportunity when young people are seeking answers to the fundamental question, “Who am I?”
I look forward to a time when teens are no longer met with an eye roll implying the answer is, “You are impulsive and perhaps dangerous and I know what’s best for you.” Instead, they’ll know we see them as capable of being their best selves because they are our future leaders. It’s our privilege to play a role in shaping them.
And here’s a bonus: when you guide and celebrate teens’ independence instead of trying to control them, they know they can return to you for advice and comfort. And they can write their own college essay.
Dr. Ken Ginsburg is cofounder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication and an attending physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.