As the mother of two teens, Sheila Wright loves to use metaphors when she talks about raising them. And she has one for every occasion.
On teaching them to choose friends wisely, she says, “I’ve taught my children to be like eagles. Eagles don’t hang out with crows or pigeons, they hang out with other eagles, or they fly alone.”
When she talks about her role as a parent, Wright uses a Hollywood metaphor: “I used to be the director in my children’s lives. The director is behind the scenes. They’re the stars. You’re shaping everything for them, but you kind of become insignificant. So I’m trying to become the agent, representing my client.”
Her face animates as she doles out her sage advice. And then she says the words that can make almost any parent cry: “You’ve got this one time to do this,” she says. “You can get degrees and own businesses, but you get one chance to raise your kids, and you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got.”
Wright speaks not only as the parent of two daughters — one in college and one in high school, both successful students — but also as someone who works with pregnant teenagers as a case manager of MomsFirst, a Cleveland Department of Public Health program, and as a teacher at the DePaul Young Parent Program that helps pregnant teens finish high school.
Although she also was a young parent, she says her rules for good parenting transcend age, race and socioeconomic status. She would have raised her daughters the same if she had been 38, instead of 18.
It started with the vision she held for her daughters since they were born, just as her mother did for her.
“My mother’s dream was that I’d be in a boardroom,” she laughs. In June, she will graduate from law school after working toward her law degree for almost six years.
She always has held concrete goals for her daughters, too. When her oldest was 5, Wright went to the open house of an elite private school and told her, “Someday you’ll come to school here.”
Sure enough, by high school, her older daughter was there. Wright moved her family from Berea to Cleveland Heights to make sure it happened. Now, her younger daughter is there, too.
As a parent and case manager, Wright sees firsthand the issues teenagers face in today’s fast-paced society. And she feels the pressure on parents, too — from what age is a cell phone appropriate to how to talk with them about drug use or sex.
To her own daughters, Wright dishes out advice and is clear about her expectations. But she sometimes finds it more enlightening to take a few steps back and just listen.
“Give them affirmations, constantly,” she says. “Be constantly communicating to them, reiterating what’s important. But also give them an opportunity to learn and think and grow. My children have a voice.”
For example, Wright once insisted her older daughter befriend a girl who seemed like a great choice for a peer. She kept pushing the relationship and her daughter kept hesitating. Finally, her daughter told her things the girl had done that didn’t fit with Wright’s value system. “Once I listened, I had to admit I was wrong,” she says.
The Simple Secret To Success
Experts say Wright’s got the formula for raising a good teen. It all boils down to a three-step process:
1. Be clear about your expectations for your teen.
2. Stay open to discussion.
3. Treat every day as a new day — and repeat steps 1 and 2 frequently.
If you don’t want your teen to date until 16, be clear about that. But if she wants to go out with a mixed-gender group of friends at 14, then discuss it.
It sounds simple enough, but adolescent specialists say that parents on both ends of the spectrum are likely to have teens who rebel. Parents who are too rigid can shut down any possibility of discussion, and have kids try risky behaviors out of spite. Those who are too liberal, like buying alcohol for a party, are likely to have teens who think risky behaviors are OK, leading to promiscuity or alcohol and drug abuse.
“If we place high expectations on them and show them how to meet those expectations, they usually rise to the occasion,” says Dr. Ellen Rome, head of adolescent medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “If we provide loving limits, they may try to bump up against those limits a couple of times to try to figure out where they are. But then if the limits are kept consistently, the kids figure out what’s safe and what’s not.”
Still, most teens don’t make it through adolescence without doing something that makes their parents’ hearts skip a beat. Part of normal adolescent development is to experiment with risky behaviors. The key to good parenting is to intervene in the right ways, so that your teen will delay experimentation as long as possible.
Rome says that studies show that parents who explicitly tell their teens that they don’t want them having sex have teens who delay sex the longest.
“Those kids delay sex even longer than kids who know what the parents believe, but the parents haven’t said it out loud,” she explains. “And, those kids delay sex longer than kids who have no idea what the parent believes.”
In many cases, though, “just saying something is not enough,” says Dr. Rina Lazebnik, director of adolescent medicine at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital — part of University Hospitals Case Medical Center.
“You have to have the discussion, the explanation, the repetition, the expectation,” she explains. “There’s so much temptation and curiosity at that age that you really have to be on it, day in and day out.”
Yes, it may be frustrating, and your teen will probably be angry.
“Just keep telling them that you’re there for them. You’re listening to them. You’re expecting them not to do this,” she says. “They get annoyed, but they still listen. It’s better than not saying it and not being there. As much as they seem angry, it is a sign of caring.”
Remember, abstract thought develops in late adolescence. So one minute, your teen might seem mature. The next, she might act worse than your grade-schooler. But teens often can’t grasp the repercussions of their actions.
“We have kids who get denied places in college or jobs after college because of what was on their MySpace at 15,” Rome says.
And, it’s not just MySpace accounts. Kids can’t always fully grasp why the grades they get as a freshman or sophomore might impact their college choices. Or, more seriously, that unprotected sex or drinking and driving could change more than their own lives forever.
Most Kids Graduate As Virgins
Although new technology such as cell phones or MySpace may make it seem like there’s a “new” troubled teen out there, the truth is that teens are better behaved today than in the past decade.
Though few teens might admit it to their peers, more than half — almost 54 percent — graduate from high school as virgins. Experimentation with cocaine, marijuana, alcohol and smoking also has decreased since the late ’90s, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey that looks at trends in risky behavior of high school students.
The burden isn’t on teens alone. Parents feel their own type of peer pressure in dealing with other parents and what they approve for their kids.
Take something as innocuous as a cell phone — which can create friction between parents who let their tweens (a child from 9 to 12) have them and those parents who don’t.
A good age rule for cell phones, says Rome, is when the teen is old enough to be left alone — to babysit, to go to the mall or after-school activities. But she says, rather than give a tween his or her own phone, it’s a good idea to have a family “loaner” that’s given to the child as needed.
If you do get your child a cell phone, talk about it being a privilege the child has earned, says Lazebnik. “There should be expectations. How much you can use it. Who you can call.”
To avoid buckling under pressure from other parents, get together with like-minded parents, says Rome.
“I engage allies in the village,” Wright says. She knows the parents of her teens’ friends. And, she leans on those parents for support, too.
“I have mentors who mentor me on parenting,” she says, “phenomenal women who I trust and who step in when I am maybe going too far this way or too far that way, they can stand back and be objective.”
Pick Your Battles
Some battles are better left unwon.
For example, clothes and hairstyles can stress out parents. But Rome and Lazebnik agree it’s a harmless way for kids to express their individuality.
Rome suggests turning around a question to the teen. If, for example, you think your daughter’s skirt is too short, don’t say, “Change it or else!” Instead, engage your daughter in a discussion. Ask, “What message are you trying to convey with that particular skirt? How do you think someone from your generation is going to take it? How do think someone from my generation is going to take it?”
Or, you could do something that’s really difficult: Just let it go.
“Nobody by age 30 has red or yellow hair. You will always have some battles with your teen, but you have to have something that they win over you,” Lazebnik says. “Becoming a teenager, they have to declare their independence.”
Some behaviors fall into the category of “if they’re going to do it anyway...” like listening to music with negative messages or reading adult books.
“It they’re going to listen to it anyway or be exposed to it elsewhere, read it, watch it, hear it, process it and discuss it with them,” Rome says. “That helps immunize them against whatever the media form is. And, when debriefing them on the rough edges of the movie or the colorful parts of the book, you may realize that some of it went right over their head. Or, you’ll have an interesting values discussion.”
The biggest mistake parents can make, cautions Lazebnik, is to think that their child won’t be exposed to adult messages or behaviors. Few teens make it through adolescence totally immune.
Unsupervised Time Leads To Trouble
That quest for independence can lead parents to make the single biggest mistake in handling teens: Thinking it’s OK to leave them home alone frequently, even every day after school. Studies show that the more unsupervised time in a teen’s life, the more likely he is to get into trouble.
Most problems happen from 3 to 6 p.m. while parents are at work. In 2001, a survey sponsored by the YMCA found that teens left unsupervised one or more days a week were three times as likely as supervised teens to try drugs and skip classes. They also engaged in all risky behaviors at a higher rate, including drinking, smoking and having sex.
“If you’re not home to see what’s going on, then they’ll try it,” says Lazebnik. At the very least, she recommends checking in by phone every day after school.
Likewise, it’s important that parents stay involved no matter what the teen’s passion — sports, debate, music, theater — making it to as many events as possible. Teens may not act openly appreciative of your efforts to leave work to watch them (even if they sit on the bench), but the secret is for them to see you, to know you’re involved and you care.
“There’s no cookie-cutter solution to a great kid,” Wright admits. “Someone could employ every tactic and strategy that I’ve had and not get the same outcome.”