Raising teens requires delicate balance of freedom
Question: If power is so important to teenagers, then it must play a key role in family dynamics. How does it work itself out at home?
Dobson: You’ve asked a very perceptive question. It is a wise parent who knows intuitively how to transfer power, or independence, to the next generation. That task requires a balancing act between two equally dangerous extremes. They dare not set their teenagers free before they are mature enough to handle the autonomy — even though they are screaming for it. Adolescents still need parental leadership and parents are obligated to provide it — that’s the law of the land. One of the characteristics of those who acquire power too early is a prevail- ing attitude of disrespect for authority. It extends to teachers, ministers, policemen, judges and even to God himself. Such an individual has never yielded to parental leadership at home. Why should he or she submit himself to anyone else? For a rebellious teenager it is only a short step from there to drug abuse, sexual experimentation, running away, and so on. The early acquisition of power has claimed countless young victims by this very process.
On the other hand, there is an equally dangerous mistake to be avoided at the latter end of adolescence. We must not wait too long to set our young adults free. Self-determination is a basic human right to which every adult is entitled. To withhold that liberty too long is to incite wars of revolution.
My good friend, Jay Kesler, observed that Mother England made that specific mistake with her children in the American colonies. They grew to become rebellious “teenagers” who demanded their freedom. Still she refused to release them and unnecessary bloodshed ensued. Fortunately, England learned a valuable lesson from that painful experience. Some 171 years later, she granted a peaceful and orderly transfer of power to another tempestuous offspring named India. Revolution was averted. At the risk of being redundant, let me summarize our goal as parents: first, we must not transfer power too early, even if our children take us daily to the battlefield. Mothers who make that mistake are some of the most frustrated people on the face of the earth. On the other hand, we must not retain parental power too long. Control will be torn from our grasp if we refuse to surrender it voluntarily. The granting of self-determination should be matched stride for stride with the arrival of matu- rity, culminating with complete release during early adulthood.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? We all know better. I consider this orderly transfer of power to be one of the most delicate and difficult responsibilities in the entire realm of parenthood.
Question: Can boys and girls be taught to treat each other with respect? That seems like a tough assignment.
Dobson: They certainly can. Young people are naturally more sensitive and empathetic than adults. Their viciousness is a learned response, resulting from the highly competitive and hostile world in which they live — a world we have allowed to develop. They are destructive to the weak and lowly because we adults haven’t bothered to teach them to feel for one another.
One of the values children cherish most is justice. They are uneasy in a world of injustice and abuse. Therefore, when we teach children respect for others by insisting on civility in our classrooms, we’re laying a foundation for human kindness in the world of adulthood to come. It is a fundamental attitude that should be taught in every classroom and every home.
Question: What do you think of the phrase “Children should be seen and not heard”?
Dobson: That statement reveals a profound ignorance of children and their needs. I can’t imagine how any loving adult could raise a vulnerable little boy or girl by that philosophy. Children are like clocks, they must be allowed to run!