At PEPS, we love hearing from families about their experiences and perspectives on parenthood. This month, we heard from several fathers who shared what they love about being a parent and their advice for other dads. Chuck, the father of two teenage daughters, shares with us about the triumphs, challenges, and his three guiding principles on raising kids.
Reflecting on my seventeen years as a father, it has occurred to me that fatherhood has so far spanned over three phases, each with its own set of triumphs and challenges. It commonly starts with the well-documented newborn phase. The babies are helpless and vulnerable, so we spend a lot of time coddling them. At around age seven, parents enter what I like to call, “The Sweet Spot.’ Children are typically able to use the bathroom on their own, make themselves toast, and parents can enjoy the relative calm for several years before entering the last phase, the teenage years.
As my daughters develop into teenagers, I have found that they can be left on their own for longer periods. They feed, clothe and bathe themselves as necessary (usually!), and can get themselves ready for the next thing on the schedule. Over time, it can get easier to care for and raise children, but the stakes have gotten higher. As families pass through these years, the consequences of a mistake can become increasingly severe. Teens are exposed to driving, drugs, alcohol, and sexual pressures from peers, which are essentially the plotline of a parental horror movie!
When I was asked to share my thoughts about parenting two teenage daughters, I thought about these phases and realized that while there are ideas that work for each stage, there are also some pretty big differences in how we might implement them. Here are three guiding principles that have helped me while raising my daughters.
Pick your battles
No matter the age, this has always been a great piece of advice that I subscribe to – what is ‘required’ vs ‘tolerable’? Young children don’t have the capacity or the awareness to follow our every rule, so we can help them prioritize. This can also work well with teenagers. Your expectations can be higher, but I’ve found that it’s best to keep those requirements simple, yet firm. In our family, we prioritize open communication, and we strongly value telling the truth. We’ve reminded them on a number of occasions, that if they come clean with a lie, then whatever punishment that may come will probably be less severe (or even eliminated) as opposed to us discovering they tried to lie about something. Does it work? I’m not so deluded to think that they tell the truth 100% of the time. We do, however, keep working to foster an open dialogue with them, even if what they are going to share is potentially embarrassing or self-incriminating. We want to always be available for the conversation they want to have about anything, at any time, without judgment or fear of punishment. With our eldest daughter now having her driver’s license, we are also very firm about not driving while distracted. Texting and driving is strictly forbidden. We emphasize to her about the dangers, and how important it is for her to be safe while she is on the road. Piles of clothes on her bedroom floor, or the consistent failure to put dishes in the dishwasher (WHY!? WHY?!) don’t bother me like they used to, so long as my daughter can drive herself home safely from school every day.
Understand your role
After a few years with our teens, it became clear to me that I was pretty much done teaching them any meaningful lessons. While they are growing up, there are several teaching moments, and most of them are what I would consider common sense. Clean up after yourself. Wash your hands. Say please and thank you. These teachable moments come up often during the toddler years, and during the Sweet Spot. With a teenager, however, teachable moments are rare. By the time they get to be this age, they are essentially the person that they are going to be. They are firmly established in their way of being (and their strengths, and shortcomings ironically tend to mirror my own). It’s not to say that nothing will change, but changes now are largely going to be a result of their own experiences and explorations. If you somehow are able to influence them in a positive way, it may be decades before you find that your wisdom actually made it into their brain. All we are doing at this stage is providing guardrails and keeping them safe.
With the distractions that we have today, it has become vitally important to learn how to be present with our children. Confession: our kids’ faces are in their phones pretty regularly. And the world we live in has made it difficult to manage it. Our oldest regularly uses her phone for homework, research, to communicate with teachers, and a host of other tools for school. It got to the point where taking the phone away was inappropriate because it prevented her ability to get schoolwork done. And, frankly, it turned into a battle that we didn’t want to fight all the time (see #1). What we were able to do was set guidelines around usage. For us, dinnertime is sacred, so when we go out to a restaurant, it is usually designated a ‘phone-free zone.’ And here is an important point – when your kids become teenagers, their time may be just as packed as yours. Every week between our two children, there are seven dance rehearsals, two roller derby practices, hours of homework, after school activities, babysitting gigs, and the occasional social function. Family dinner is rare, as are the times we sit down altogether to enjoy a meal and hear about what’s going on in their lives, so it is very rewarding.
Here’s the kicker – at this stage in their life, they are a heck of a lot of fun. Yes, babies are cute, and toddlers can be hilarious to watch grow up in their own clumsy way. But your teenagers have learned a stunning amount of information, and have developed into amazing human beings, with goals, fears, ideas and opinions of their own. And this knowledge may not be what you learned growing up. Just the other day over breakfast, we got a rundown of the entire history of conflict in the Middle East, and a lively discussion about the statewide abortion laws that have been passed in the Southern U.S. These teens have already learned and accomplished so much, and they badly want to share and make their parents proud.
I don’t know all the answers and I’ll admit to a terrifying number of failures in raising my girls. In full disclosure, I don’t have boys, but I’ll guess that these ideas can be just as helpful in raising them too. These are a few simple things that have helped me through some wild times with these wonderful human beings. Best wishes on your own journey as you navigate this most rewarding time of life!
About the Author
Chuck McDonald works in finance for his day job, and is also a part-time yoga instructor and musician. He is well supported in this journey by Kimberly, his wife of 22 years, and their daughters Celia (17) and Cypress (14).