Author of “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen” Says Take a Demotion to Be a Better Parent

The business of raising kids is neither for the faint-hearted, nor the inflexible. 

Have you ever considered how you’d write your job description for parenting your kids? As a manager of a small business and a small family, I see parallels in my two job descriptions. Setting goals, tracking progress, being responsible for safety, morale, and organization, for example. 

I find this metaphor helps me envision possibilities. Parents often lament that kids come without an instruction manual. I lamented that parenting comes without a job description. And so, I’ve given a lot of thought to creating my own.  

What is the job description for being the parent of a teen? (Twenty20 @bchilton1274)

Defining my job when was easier my kids were toddlers

When my kids were toddlers, defining my job was much easier. Though my days were comprised of thousands of small but fundamental decisions, most related to the tasks of keeping little ones safe, healthy, engaged, and well-loved. My husband and I put up the baby gates and bumper pads. We blended fresh organic carrots — for about two days until we pivoted to the jarred stuff on our grocery store shelves.

We consulted with our friends on nap schedules and trusted our parents when they told us not to worry. Of course, we fretted. Of course! This isn’t to dismiss the long slog of worries everyone wades through as parents of a preschoolers. Will my child fall behind if we don’t take sign language class? Am I breaking their spirit or building resilience by letting them cry? In what way, in what hundreds of ways, might I be contributing to this precious human’s future demise? So yes, we worried, but the job description felt like a touchstone: keep them safe, healthy, engaged, and well-loved. 

14 talks by 14

Then they turned into teens

And when a smiling stranger would joke, “Just wait until they’re teens!” we’d smile back tensely and chuckle “Oh right, haha!” thinking, nothing could be harder than this sleep-deprived, butt-wiping, tantrum-throwing phase and you, sir, know nothing.

Until we had teenagers. 

What makes parenting a teenager so hard is the utter lack of control you have over your job duties. Just when you’ve gotten really good at what you do, the company gets restructured and your position becomes, well, vague.

What is the job description for being the parent of a teen?

It’s not that your job isn’t to keep your teen safe, healthy, engaged and well-loved anymore.  It’s that suddenly, achieving those goals takes the opposite approach you’ve been using all these years. No one really explains that. Allow me to try.

Starting in early middle school, a switch flips for your child as they begin the developmental phase of becoming an independent person. This shows up looking like moodiness, cocooning in their rooms, begging for freedom to be with friends unsupervised, and arguing.

These young contrarians are simply figuring out how to transition from being an appendage of yours to becoming individuals who will operate in the world less and less under your guidance. They’re growing up. 

As this need to explore independence grows, parents fear the ways their child might be exposed to danger: cyberbullies, pedophiles, reckless drivers — you name it. There are myriad ways a tween or teen can have their safety (mental and physical) compromised as they’re exposed to more and more of the world without your constant oversight.

You remember your early job description: Keep them safe. Keep them healthy. Keep them engaged. Keep them feeling loved. But how, now? If only bumper pads, naps, and hand-holding could still do the trick.

Parents may start to hover over their teens in their rush to keep them safe

Without clear direction, many parents clampdown. Knowing their tweens and teens are impulsive, inexperienced, and highly emotional, they prioritize safety and see it as their job to micromanage their exposure to danger. Safety first! The intent is good, and we can all relate to and respect that urge toward protection. Except, micromanaging doesn’t keep kids safe. 

Here’s why. The adolescent brain craves risk. It’s nature’s way of making sure your child not only ends up grown but flown as well. Becoming independent is the riskiest thing a young person can do. If your kid’s brain didn’t crave risk, they might not think getting a license was worth the risk of a possible car accident. Or that getting a part-time job was worth the risk of not performing well. Or that living alone was worth the risk of not being able to care for themselves.

A brain that hates risk would say, “Eh. We have everything we need here. No rent. Good snacks. Xbox. Why leave?”   

And so, the adolescent brain, driven toward taking risks in order to someday become independent, will do whatever it can to meet that need. A tween or teen who is micromanaged with no opportunities to take risks openly will do what we as parents fear most: they will go underground to satisfy that desire.

They will find dark, private places to practice being grown up. But here is the good news. All risk, good or bad, will satisfy an adolescent brain’s need. So, letting them do enough things that feel thrilling and scary to them, as counterintuitive as it sounds, will actually keep them safer. 

Back to the business of running a family — how do you do your job when you have a need to keep your kid safe, and they have a need to explore their independence, and both are at odds with each other?

You take a demotion. 

When your middle schooler starts to seek out their independence, it’s time for you to take a demotion

By the start of middle school, and increasingly through high school and college, it’s time to unburden yourself as your child’s Micromanager and become their Assistant Manager. 

Think about the worst manager you’ve ever worked for and consider what qualities they had that made them such a terrible boss. Were they controlling? Overly emotional? Disrespectful of work-life balance? A poor communicator? Inconsistent? Were they a micromanager?

If you can come up with a list of all the ways that person was a bad manager, and then flip each one around, you’d have a pretty good job description for being a parent to a tween or teen. As an Assistant Manager, your job is now to strike a balance between keeping them safe and exposing them to enough opportunities where they can hone their “adulting” skills. 

It’s new territory, but you’re up to the job. Congratulations on your demotion! You’ve earned it and so has your kid. 

More to Read:

What Happened When I Began to Quit Caring More Than My Teens Do

About Michelle Icard

Michelle Icard is a speaker, author, and educator who helps kids, parents, and teachers navigate the complicated social world of early adolescence. Her latest book, Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen guides readers through the fourteen essential conversations parents need to have with their kids before they start high school. Her first book, Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years, is a primer for the social and emotional changes parents and kids navigate when mid-life meets middle school under one roof.

Michelle is a member of the TODAY Show parenting team and NBC News Learn. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, CNN, Time, and People Magazine. Her middle school leadership programs, Athena’s Path & Hero’s Pursuit, have been implemented at schools across the country and she speaks around the globe at schools and parenting events. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Read more posts by Michelle

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