Parenting with a future teen in mind


I became a teacher the same year I became a parent: 1994.

It’s impossible for me to separate the two in my mind. I can’t imagine teaching without the parent perspective, and I can’t imagine parenting without thinking of our children as the teenagers/students they would become.

As our kids grew up, I frequently found myself battling contradictions. As a teacher, I expect kids to learn organizational skills. As a parent, I occasionally drove my kids back to school to pick up missing homework.

As a teacher, I question why we emphasize sports so much over academics. As a parent, I supported one son’s years of participation in “traveling” basketball.

As a teacher, I question whether we should be pushing all kids to go to college. As a parent, I definitely wanted my own kids to go.

Now that our kids are adults and I’ve taught a few thousand students (and resolved most of my contradictions), I have a few thoughts on what it means to parent with a future teenager in mind. I could write an entire blog post (or book, perhaps) about each one, but I’ll keep it short for now. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts.

#1 Routines If there’s something you want your kids to do or to value as they grow up — like reading or volunteering or gardening or travel — start doing it with them as early as possible. Kids are very much creatures of habit, more than I would have imagined. If you cook pizza for Sunday dinner three weeks in a row, it becomes an expectation. It becomes what we do  and who we are. It’s much harder to suddenly introduce new routines and habits later. If you want your kids to be responsible for their own work or their own money, give them that responsibility in kindergarten. (Even if they don’t always handle it perfectly)

#2 Speaking of Money There are a lot of right ways to help children learn to manage money, but there are also wrong ways. The key is to make sure they learn about making choices with consequences, and that starts as soon as they are old enough to ask for things. If you always make spending decisions for them, or always give them money when they want something, you’re setting them (and yourself) up for frustration later. The wish list doesn’t get cheaper! We always gave our kids a bit of spending money, even when they were little, so they could decide whether to buy candy or save up for a book or toy. When one son got to high school, he suddenly cared about having the right shoes, jeans, sporting apparel, etc. Instead of indulging him or denying him, we gave him a budget — enough that he could afford some but not all of what he wanted. He figured out what was important to him and built good spending habits.

#3 Electronics Not to beat this issue into the ground — I’ve written about it several times before, most recently here — but kids do not need personal electronic gadgets. A family computer (in a shared space, like a family room) and basic phone is sufficient. Our kids grew up without a video game system, cable TV, smart phones or iPads, and they didn’t miss out on much. In fact, one is majoring in computer science. Early exposure to devices builds addiction to the devices, not the ability to function as “digital natives.” (There is no such thing.) And it doesn’t make them happier people. Be willing to say no and stick to it.

#4 Perfectionism When one of my sons started middle school, he asked if we expected him to get straight As. Nope. We told him As and Bs were fine, and if he had Cs, we just wanted to know that he was asking for help and figuring out what he didn’t understand. Too many kids in high school feel pressured to take all AP classes, get perfect grades (like they did in elementary and middle school), star on a sports team, take on leadership positions and get into the “best” colleges. Maybe all this pressure helps motivate some kids, but it breeds anxiety and depression in too many others.  Parents need to actively embrace imperfection. Burn some cookies; get a parking ticket; track mud on the carpet. Let your kids see you survive being less than perfect. And encourage them to try something they might not be good at, just for fun.

#5 Sports Let me say this up front: Your child is unlikely to be a professional athlete. They might play in college, but probably not on scholarship. In 20+ years, I’ve watched a lot of kids go through youth sports, traveling sports, and high school sports, and I’ve seen many more kids burn out on sports than I’ve seen earn money at it. This is not to say I don’t value sports — I loved watching my son play basketball. Let’s just see youth sports for what it is. For most kids, the valuable things they’ll get out of sports will be: resilience, friendships, leadership skills, teamwork, fitness, and if they’re lucky (and don’t get seriously injured), a lifelong hobby. Balance the time/money devoted to sports with music and art lessons or camps devoted to coding, language immersion, or community service. That way, your kids learn a sense of balance too. And when you talk about their futures, talk about other careers — and how learning (not grades) can help them get there.