Remember the Tide Pod challenge? The cinnamon challenge? How about the Momo challenge?
If you have teens, chances are you remember hearing about at least one of these, or some other weirdly imaginative, but also physically harmful, “challenge” that was taking the internet—and therefore supposedly teens—by storm. And if you’re anything like me, you also remember waiting for your kids to get out of school that day so you could talk to them about it ASAP.
If you’re actually me, that “discussion” started out as an interrogation, had a warning somewhere in the middle, and morphed into a lecture peppered with old standbys like, “If you die from this, I’ll kill you!” My son’s response was more or less the same each time: “How stupid do you think I am?”
Parents of teens are bombarded with messages about what can go wrong
Fair question. In my defense—in every mom’s defense—to be a parent today means to be bombarded with a steady stream of media messages about things that can go horribly wrong. The media’s job isn’t to present a statistically accurate picture of childhood. When was the last time you read anything along the lines of: “99.99% percent of teenagers came home today without incident”?
The media’s job is to get clicks, and reporters know that parents of gorgeous promising young people will click on any tragedy involving a gorgeous promising young person, no matter how unlikely (or even fake) it is.
We make the media’s job easier by maintaining a state of parental vigilance with group chats, Facebook feeds, Amber Alerts, and breaking news notifications (local and national, of course). Seeing the same story over and over contributes to our sense that a risk is real. If everyone is talking about it, am I going to be the only parent who doesn’t do something to protect my kid? Parents of teenagers, no longer much welcome in the classroom or other longtime haunts, are particularly susceptible to the feeling of wanting to do something.
Compounding our sense of insecurity, parents are confronted with constantly changing and mixed messages about what we’re doing wrong. Talk more. Give them space. Build their self-esteem. Make sure they recognize their privilege. Set them up for success. Let them make mistakes. At the same time, as kids get older and share less of their internal monologue (or anything, really) with their parents, it can be very tough to judge on any given day whether we’re doing the right thing. Unlike our kids, we don’t get a report card, which keeps us on shaky ground.
My sons are now 18 and 22. I’m proud to say they have never (as far as I know) jumped on a supposed Internet fad that risked them harm. But I’m not too proud to admit that my after-school lectures had little, if anything to do with it. In retrospect, I suspect it was our long game. It was our commitment to instilling in our sons a few simple human values, not my kneejerk response to every possible threat, that kept our boys on track. (Plus, my husband is a very sensible person and they have his DNA.)
Simple values we tried to instill in our teens
- Take care of yourself because you matter. By the time your kids are teens, they have been told to wear a helmet, get down from there, be careful, watch out countless times. They heard the fear in your voice when they fell. They felt your love as you washed out their cuts, iced their bruises, carried them to the doctor’s office. They know they matter to you, and to others. They know not to eat a Tide Pod.
- You are responsible for yourself. Even though their still-developing brains favor risk-taking, teens do understand that actions have consequences. Remember that heart wrenching moment in grade school when you first refused to drive forgotten homework up to the school? How about the always epic “You made this mess and you’re going to clean it up!” Give yourself a pat on the back for surviving those battles. Your teenager is well on his way to learning that he’s responsible for his dang self.
- You are responsible for the people you care about. Your teens may joke about how you throw your arm across them in the passenger seat when you make a quick stop, but they know you can’t help it. They see how you take a headcount when you drive the carpool, make sure there’s enough water for everyone on the team, and grab any gear that’s left behind after the game. You don’t need to tell them to stop their friends from eating Tide Pods. They know to watch out for their people.
- Make your own decisions. Teens don’t miss a trick. Sure, they call you out for being a hypocrite every chance they get, but they’ve also watched you listen to your conscience and stick to your guns. They’ve seen you make awkward calls to moms you don’t know to find out the deal with a sleepover. They may have been furious when you kept them home from a concert or a party “everybody else” was going to, but they saw that when something doesn’t feel right, you’re brave enough to do your own thing, no matter how much foot stomping, door slamming, and silent treatment you would surely suffer. I joke to my sons as they leave the house, “Make good decisions! Good to me, not to you!” They know that they know what to do.
I’m not saying that your teenagers won’t make stupid risky decisions. What I’m saying is that we can all calm down about the 24-7 freaky deaky news alerts because it’s day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year parenting that gives us a chance to protect our teenagers from making stupid risky decisions. It’s not the panicky blurted news-of-the-day warnings.
It’s the feeling that they matter, not only to us, but that their voice counts as much as any peer’s. It’s the sense that they are part of a community counting on them to do the right thing. It’s knowing that they can be brave when it comes to keeping themselves and their friends safe because they’ve watched us do the same for them, over and over. These aren’t the kinds of things you can teach someone in a panicked lecture about bath salts (remember bath salts?). We teach them by living.
And to answer my sons’ question, I don’t think they’re stupid at all. (But don’t do anything stupid, guys.)
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Kara Kinney Cartwright always says, please, thank you, and excuse me—even on the subway. She married a total good guy and, through relentless lecturing, teasing, cash-bribing, and tricking, they have raised two sons who are not assholes, for the most part. If you happen to know her in person, this book is not about you, for the most part. She has written parenting articles for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, Babble, Grown and Flown, and more. She lives near Washington, DC, and works in legal publishing.