Parenting From the Teen Years Backwards | Mary Beth Bonacci | Ignatius Insight
Start "building" your idea teenager long before the teen years start.
We had our first snowfall here in Denver last night. I'm sure my niece and nephew are very excited. Not because they get to go sledding or make snow forts (there really isn't enough snow for that.) No, they're excited about snow because it means they're getting older. Their birthdays are both in December, so they know that snowfall means their birthdays are close. And they love that.
Me, not so much. While they're anxiously counting the years until they can do "grown up stuff," I am desperately wishing there was a way I could keep them as young and sweet and innocent as they are right now. I see the world that awaits them, and I'm already dreading the pressures and temptations they'll have to face.
I've been working with teenagers--and the parents of teenagers -- for over 20 years. And I know for a fact that most parents feel the way I do about the teen years. They're scared. Children who were playing with toys the day before yesterday are suddenly expected to talk, dress and act like the worst stereotype of a promiscuous twentysomething, and their parents don't know quite what to do about it.
Most parents deal with their fear by the parental equivalent of plugging their ears and humming. They enjoy their kids while they're young, and they figure they'll cross the "teen" bridge when they come to it.
I would advocate a different approach.
I once gave a talk about "living life from the deathbed backwards." In other words, think about what you will want your life to look like when you're on your deathbed looking back at it, and build that life now. In the same way, I'm an advocate of parenting "from the teen years backwards." Parents of small children need to think very deeply and very specifically about what traits their teens will need in order to successfully navigate that portion of their lives. And then, their parents need to work at inculcating those traits in their children.
When are children more likely to absorb information from their parents? When they're three and believe their parents can do no wrong, or when they're thirteen and can't believe their parents could possibly be so lame about everything?
You want to pour as much information as possible into their brains when they're three.
Not only are little kids more receptive to their parents' suggestions, but they're also at a stage where they're building their worldview. They don't know anything, so they ask about everything. Anything you tell a small child goes onto his or her "hard drive."
So start to work on "building" the kind of teenager you want.
I'm not talking about a shallow, surface-y approach to this. "I don't want my kids to do drugs, so I'll teach my kids that drugs are bad." No. You don't need to tell a small child about illegal street drugs. You need to think deeper. Why are some kids more susceptible to drugs than others? Well, maybe some fall into it because they're not confident. So build confidence in your kid. Often, they try drugs because they aren't strong enough to stand up to peer pressure. Watch your child from a very young age. Watch him around his friends. Is he strong enough to do the right thing even when it isn't popular, or does he value being liked over standing up for principles? If it's the latter, work on it now when the stakes are low.
You don't want your daughter to be seduced by a sweet-talking manipulator? Okay. Start from a very young age, teaching her about love. Tell her over and over that real love means wanting what's best for the other, and that anyone who pressures her or doesn't respect her wishes or her principles doesn't really love her.
Don't want her to be tempted by the slutty clothes her friends are wearing? Teach her about the sacredness of her body. Teach her that sacred means good--that she covers the private parts of her body out of respect for herself and for God. Imbue in her an awe and respect for her body that would make excessively exposing it unthinkable to her.
Afraid of an eating disorder? Emphasize the importance of good nutrition as fuel for the body, and the damage that can happen when we don't give our bodies the fuel they need.
Are you starting to get the idea here? Think about the teenaged problems you dread, figure out on a very deep level what causes them, and address them ahead of time.
You'll notice that none of this requires actually discussing "mature" topics while they're young. You don't have to describe bulimia to help a child understand nutrition. You don't need to talk about leering men to teach a girl about respecting herself and her body.
This about laying a foundation. Then when they're older and it's time to discuss those mature subjects, you can refer back to these basic truths you've inculcated in them. And the discussion will go much, much easier.
Who knows--you may even wind up enjoying your kids' teen years.
This column originally appeared on RealLove.net on November 10, 2008. Click here to read more of Mary Beth Bonacci's columns.
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Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.
Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.
Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997. Her apostolate, Real Love Incorporated is dedicated to presenting the truth about the Church's teaching about sexuality, chastity, and marriage.
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