Saying “I love you. I’m proud of you. You’ve got what it takes,” are all positive things a teen needs to hear on a regular basis. This is general, common sense parenting. But there are some topics we talk with our teens about in ways that may be sending the wrong message without realizing so. For example, telling a teen “Don’t have sex,” is likely not going to resonate your teenager’s reality and may close the door of open conversation about sexual health and safety when your teen does decide to become sexual active.
Talking to our teens isn’t always easy. Sex educator, Karen Rayne, who specializes in adolescent education, runs through a list of typical things we say to our teens that may be doing more harm than good.
Her overall message to parents: We tend to try to protect our teens with fear-based messaging. However, these statements forego the depth of relating to their realities. We need to talk to our teens in respectful ways in order to offer sincere support, insight and mentorship.
This article was originally published on Unhushed.
BY DR. KAREN RAYNE | KarenRayne.com
There was a meme running around Facebook and the Internet that is titled something along the lines of “What your teenager needs to hear” or “Message to my teenager” or something similar. The author is listed as “unknown.” I hate this list.
So I’m going to break it down, point out what’s wrong with it, and try to parse out what should be there instead.
Here’s the list, with my commentary interspersed:
1. “Yes, your freshman AND Sophomore years count towards your GPA for college entrance. Screw it up and you’ll work for crap wages your whole life.”
Yes, it’s true, your freshman and sophomore grades do count towards you entire high school GPA. But admissions offices look at trends as well as overall averages. If you made crap grades your freshman year and great grades your senior year, that shows progress and development as a person. Colleges love that sort of thing! It is, in fact, exactly what they’re looking for and want to develop in their student body! So congratulations!
2. “No means NO. In every possible circumstance.”
This is true. Well done for spotting it, and it’s something teenagers need to hear. Really, it’s something that adults and children need to hear too. Can’t we all hear this a little more? But, the conversation needs more than this. While I understand that this is intended to be a somewhat clever and pithy list, there are some topics that need just a hair more attention and nuance paid to them, and this is one of those things. We also need to say that the only thing that means yes is a yes, that silence means no or hold on or let’s talk about this some more. And sometimes, particularly when a girl is underage, even if she says yes, an adult needs to say no.
3. “Join every sport, every club, every after school activity no matter what the cost. It’s cheaper than bail.”
Well that’s just not true either! Sports, clubs, after school activities, these are all really, really expensive! I suspect, though, that you mean they’re not potentially damaging to a young person’s future, unlike finding themselves with many hours to fill with unsavory and illegal activities. But if the goal here is really to keep your kid out of trouble, is suggesting they join the theater club (where they typically smoke a lot of pot) or sports teams (where they often drink a lot of alcohol) really what you want? And maybe what you should be suggesting is that your kid not do anything illegal. I think that, again, you’ve lost your point in your attempt to be pithy.
4. “Repeat after me: I am never in that much of a hurry…I am never in that much of a hurry. Now say that every time you get behind the wheel. It will save your life and that of your best friend in the seat next to you.”
I’m just not down with the extreme scare tactics. It’s no good for anyone. So just take a deep breath and instead of threatening them with death, which is oblique and far away, point out the very real and far more intellectually accessible possibility of totaling their car.
5. “Don’t do drugs or drink – it is so not worth the trouble.”
Ever? Don’t drink ever? Adolescents learning how to drink appropriately is one reason why European college students don’t binge drink like US college students. Teenagers need their parents to teach them how to drink in family settings, not just tell them not to do it. And “Don’t do drugs.” Well, this is sure referring a wide range of potential activities, isn’t it? Lumping pot together with coke is just a bad idea. They’re too different – the affects on the body too far flung – to address them in one big group.
6. “Don’t get a credit card. You earn it or you live without it.”
Actually, your teenager will need a credit score at some point, and getting a credit card with a low limit ($200, $300) and talking about appropriate use is a really good thing. In fact, it’s something parents should consider to be part of their responsibilities to their children.
7. “If I yell at you, it’s because I love you. And also, because you pissed me off. To avoid the latter, don’t be an idiot. And don’t disappoint me. More importantly, yourself.”
Can your teenager yell at you because they love you? Why do you hold them to a higher standard then you hold yourself? (This same issue comes up in number 18. I don’t like it there either.) The “don’t be an idiot” part? That’s great, actually. And it is more important that teenagers don’t disappoint themselves than that they don’t disappoint their parents, so I’m glad that was in there too.
8. “Make a vivid picture inside your head of every great moment of your childhood. You’ll need those to get through adulthood.”
Maybe…sometimes…depending on your childhood…and your adulthood.
9. “Make snow angels as often as possible. Make a bucket list. Check it off!”
Yes! More like this! This one is good because it is beautiful and whimsical and encourages young people to think about what they want in life and then go do those things. We all need more encouragement like this.
10. “Stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.”
This is also a great one, and the urgency of it has only grown stronger over the years.
11. “Be always benevolent. Yes, that’s a word. Look it up.”
Ugh! So insulting, snarky, dismissive. I knew what benevolent meant when I was a teenager, and I would have stopped reading any piece of writing directed to teenagers that assumed I was (1) lacking an extensive vocabulary AND (2) uninterested in understanding what I was reading. No author should assume this of their readers regardless of their age.
12. “Call me for a ride even if you are so drunk you barely know my number. I’ll probably be mad for a while but I’ll respect you for calling and I won’t kill you. Riding with someone who is drinking will.” (PS – remember #5?)
Love this one. LOVE IT! (My issues with #5 remain and are exasperated by this one. Conflating drinking with drinking and driving is irresponsible. One can be done appropriately, the other cannot.)
13. “Be a leader, not a follower. Unless you are following the kid with the highest GPA and (s)he is going to a study group, then by all means be a follower!”
Such a conflicting message! First of all, there are often good reasons to follow someone. In fact, finding the right person to follow to the right places can be an amazing career move! This little instruction guide halfway acknowledges this fact (following someone can help you learn things and be a better student), while expressly stating the opposite. How are teenagers supposed to know when which rule applies?
14. “Love your siblings, even when you don’t like them. Some day you will be trying to get them to take care of me in my old age. If they are mad at you, you are stuck with me.”
This one I can get fully behind. Particularly given the rest of these little missives that are lacking in-depth thoughtful approaches to relationships or life in general.
15. “I’ve been there, done that on more things than you can imagine. I’m not stupid and I know what you are doing. I was once you (times ten).”
I think this is supposed to be a threat. But I’m not even clear what it’s threatening.
16. “Work hard at everything you do. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
I happen to disagree, but maybe it’s just a perspectives thing. Some things just need to get done, and being done well enough is just fine. Why stress out more than necessary?
17. “Cover it.” (Enough said.)
I think the intention was to encourage young people to use condoms when engaging in sexual activities, but the speaker (given the parenthetical) isn’t actually comfortable just coming out and saying it. Instead, they are attempting to use the common vernacular of the young people of today. But then the sentence should have been “Wrap it.” As in, “Wrap it before you tap it.” Which, while vulgar, is another message I can get behind 100%.
18. “When I tell you to clean your room, do not point at my messy room and raise your eyebrows. I’m trying to raise you to be better than me.”
Why parents think that their children won’t imitate them is beyond me. Really and truly, utterly beyond me. It’s what children DO! Yes, they are also becoming their own people, etcetera etcetera etcetera, but you are a guiding light in their life, even as they grow into teenagers and adults. They pick up habits from you, both good and bad. You do not get to pick which ones, as much as you might like to!
19. “Learn to type; to budget; to spell correctly and to pray. All are equally important.”
Spelling? Really? The likelihood that your teenager will ever write something important that won’t be spell checked through a computer is extraordinarily unlikely. Spelling is nothing like budgeting in terms of importance to lifelong well-being.
20. “Never be sedentary. Someday soon you will no longer be able to move like that. Enjoy it.”
The threats of the perils of aging directed at young people exhaust me. There are good things and bad things about being young and there are good things and bad things about being old. Saying this just makes you sound bitter about your side of the fence.
This list specifically – and this genre of lists in general – tend to forgo depth of thought in place of an attempt at humor. They are generally written from an older person’s perspective to a younger person, but they are insulting to the intelligence of the younger person. As you get older, you grow into a new position, you grow into a place to offer sincere support, insight, and mentorship to young people. Why throw away that opportunity with insults?
Humor, now, humor is important, critical even, to the process of both parenting and mentoring. If we can’t have fun together, how can we be expected to be serious together? So have fun, laugh, and do so with your standards held high for both yourself and the young person who you’re talking with.
DR. KAREN RAYNE With a doctoral degree is in Educational Psychology, Karen provides advice and support to parents on how to educate their children and teenagers about sex and sexuality. Karen’s knowledge about adolescent development and education provides her with a solid background for guiding parents through these tricky conversations. And, as a college professor, helping young adults grapple with sexuality, she is known to change student’s lives. On twitter @KarenRayne