Experiments in parenting

Building a healthy relationship with your child seems less like implementing a reasoned plan of action and more like taking part in an 18-year experiment. There are bound to be a few accidents and unexpected setbacks. The outcome depends on a complex combination of factors that are impossible to control. Yet, parents are expected to do the right thing intuitively.

At the beach 
Back in 2001, I rented a house at the beach, and my daughter invited three of her high-school classmates to spend a week with us there. The girls were all good students, devoted athletes, and stereotypically avid consumers. Their homogeneous behavior seemed almost to mock their ethnic diversity, leaving their parents simultaneously proud and slightly disconcerted. The four nearly identical teenage girlfriends in tank tops, tight jeans, and rubber flip-flops represented the Muslim, Hindu, and Christian faiths. During our week by the ocean, they stayed up late under a starry sky and slept straight through the lovely, misty mornings. They giggled over good-looking teenage boys with surfboards, grew either tawnier or more sunburned every day, and never once argued about sharing a single, small bathroom.

One hot and lazy afternoon, I asked the girls to tell me what they thought contributed to good relationships between them and their parents. They were amazingly articulate on the subject, but their answers encompassed broad ideals rather than specific examples.

Fairness and trust were the parental traits they valued most. They all agreed that their mothers and fathers needed to understand when to back down. A girl with gorgeous, dark, waist-length hair, whom the others probably would have voted the most dutiful daughter, explained that backing down meant “knowing when to let you sink or swim.”

I recalled the quietly insulted and impatient silence with which the girls met my stern warnings about riptides and sharks during the last hour of the long road trip to the coast. As the housemother of four teenagers for the week, I’d felt obliged to alert them to all unfamiliar potential dangers, no matter how remote. My little speech, I suddenly realized, had been overkill.

As the girls continued to reveal their thoughts on parenting, most of their concerns related to conflicts about dating and curfews.

“It’s harder when you have two older siblings,” said a melancholy teen whose parents, she explained, were intent on upholding strict cultural traditions. She insisted that her parents applied a double standard; they were much more lenient with her older brothers. She also suspected the restrictions they imposed, their criticism of her form-fitting clothes, and their reluctance to let her date had less to do with their religious beliefs than with a desire to maintain their positions as respected members of their community.

The dependable daughter of similarly traditional parents admitted they also discouraged dating. She added, “They want me to focus on my studies.”

Timidly, her classmate interjected, “That’s the one thing that hinders my relationship with my parents. I hope things will change when I go to college.”

The youngest of the four girls, a talented and self-confident 16-year-old ballerina, reported the opposite experience. “I don’t have a curfew, and my older brothers do,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. “Because they abused it?”

“Yeah,” came her reply, as predictable as a punch line and accompanied by everyone’s laughter.

I probed, “What do your parents say about dating?”

Amused by the contrast between her situation and her friends’, she confessed, “My mom, like, urges me on.”

Emboldened by her three friends’ candor, my daughter suddenly spoke up to scold me for inviting the teenage boy vacationing with his family in the beach house next door to come over to our rented cottage one evening. “What you did was wrong,” she insisted. The four girls and the polite young Southern gentleman enjoyed each other’s company during the remainder of the week, but the end result apparently didn’t justify my awkward means. The girls’ definition of trust didn’t extend to my assertive brand of affection. They preferred parents who knew when to disappear in order to avoid being a source of embarrassment. To a young girl, throwing sidelong glances at a handsome guy for seven days was preferable to—gasp!—being introduced to him by her mother.

The girls told me that when a teenager shared private thoughts and emotions, the parent privileged with the information needed to respect its confidentiality. It’s not always easy to discern what your child considers private. At the beach house, the girls sounded ironically like their parents when attempting to analyze the concept. “When something is confidential, you shouldn’t have to tell parents,” they agreed. “They should just know.” Twenty-five years later, maybe they would encounter the same difficulty I had remembering what embarrassed me at their age.

When I was a teenager, my mother shamed me with blunt criticism. Today’s parents tend to believe that encouragement and affirmation help build children’s self-confidence. So, where do parents typically go wrong these days?

“Sometimes praise is too much,” my daughter said. Her father’s pride in her athletic achievements the previous spring was touching, but she felt overwhelmed by it and began to steer clear of him.

Her three classmates complained of parents obsessively focused on academic success. “They won’t let me experience things for myself,” added one. “Parents need to have faith in you.”

Another parental gaffe the girls found reprehensible was their mothers’ and fathers’ tendency to give orders. The girls resented being handed lists of things to do and preferred acting on their own initiatives—a perfectly acceptable arrangement, in theory. My daughter insisted that hearing praise from me for chores she completed on her own would be a strong motivator. Two of the girls said they felt resentful when their parents ignored their contributions to the household. The dutiful daughter claimed, “I do everything I’m told, but it’s like there’s no incentive.” Receiving permission to go out on a date, she said, or simple words of gratitude would be effective. “Teenagers don’t have a lot of confidence,” she added. “They need a lot of positive reinforcement.”

Talk of praise led naturally to a discussion of parents’ reactions to the grades the girls received at school. Comparing their educational achievements to those of older siblings or other relatives, as some parents tended to do, made them cringe.

“Do you think you’d be such good students if your parents didn’t set such high standards?” I asked.

“No,” they admitted in unison, yet they insisted they wanted to be judged as individuals.

One of them added, “Take a child for what that child’s worth, praise the good, and point out only the really bad things.”

Impressed by the girls’ insights and their responsible behavior during our week at the beach, I concluded our conversation by telling them to take my car and go wherever they wanted for dinner that evening. “Now that’s what we like!” chirped the youngest of my daughter’s companions as the others chimed in with happy agreement.

Contentedly, I surveyed my temporarily empty rented nest and then headed for the beach without another overprotective thought. A few hours later, my daughter found me stretched out on the warm sand. Uncontrollable tears streaked her face as she sobbed the explanation for a big, ugly dent in the trunk of my car. My sensitivity and understanding evaporated. Another experiment in rearing a teenager had gone awry.

4 Replies to “Experiments in parenting”

  1. Your discussion with the girls on praise made me think of this article by Po Bronson in New York Magazine:


    Speaking from the daughter’s end of the spectrum, if this comment helps in any way…my mother and I fought like cats and dogs until I was 14. Once we had a final knock-down, drag-out (figuratively speaking) and actually shouted loud enough to hear each other, we became best friends.

    My father and I are still working on hearing each other.

    Wonderful piece, Robin. Much kudos to you and your daughter for continuing the experiment…

  2. I loved this piece too! I like these more transparent and personal entries! much closer to 97%. :)

    And, IMHO, it was just a car. and that can happen to anybody. didnt have to have been irresponsible? :)

  3. Robin, I sometimes wonder if the miscommunication between parents and teens is somehow of evolutionary significance, as it seems to be a constant from generation to generation. Perhaps the minor disconnects are a way of priming teens for adulthood on their own, and a way to ease parents into letting go. Thank you for this heartfelt piece. As a mother still wrapped up in toddlerhood, I try to savor the moments with my daughters, as I know they’ll pass far too quickly.

  4. The article you point to is VERY interesting, Jo. Praise tends to make me self-conscious. I feel pressured to measure up to it. Usually, it motivates me to work harder, an effect that didn’t seem to crop up in the experiment described in the article, although I’m sure such a reaction is not unheard of and can be observed in children as well as adults. Insincere praise is pretty easy to detect as flattery. I don’t like to get it or give it.

    When my daughter was about 15, I told her I wanted her to pose a reasonable argument when she disagreed with me, rather than accepting my decision and remaining silent but resentful. I think it made a difference in our relationship. Maybe we can get her to comment on that. (ahem)

    Dan, the other 3% of the story, not to mention the car insurance premiums that were permanently increased, might explain my hardhearted reaction. However, you’ll be glad to know we didn’t let the accident ruin the vacation.

    Tara makes a valid point. Teenagers are supposed to create distance between themselves and their parents, which gradually ensures their self-sufficiency as adults. The degree of distance and timing can vary widely from one culture to another. Today, one can expect a child’s senior year of high school to involve an overdose of rituals and celebrations apparently designed to tranquilize anxious parents.

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