WHAT KIND OF PLACE IS ADOLESCENCE ANYWAY?
"Can I come with you, Daddy? Can I? I could help out at the
Hannah, then thirteen years old, looked at me with those
adorable, pleading eyes. How could I say no?
But inwardly I smiled to myself. You see, I knew what I was
going to be speaking about at the conference; Hannah did not.
She was merely anticipating an exciting evening of going out
somewhere with me.
"Sure, honey, I'd love to have you come along," I said
Too quickly, I realized, for instantly Hannah was suspicious.
"What are you talking about tonight?"
I kept a deadpan expression. "Adolescence."
Hannah gasped. "Oh, no. Please, Daddy, please, please, please don't mention me. Don't say anything about me."
There was a pause, and then my daughter started laughing.
She hit herself on the forehead with the palm of her hand. "Oh,
no! I just gave you material for tonight, didn't I?"
I was grinning all over. Indeed she had!
At thirteen, Hannah was just breaking into that rollicking,
fun, treacherous, frustrating, meaningful, and wonderful time
we call adolescence. It's a contradictory place-where young
teenagers want to be the center of the world at the same time
they don't want any attention drawn to them! They want to be
perfect in all they do and in how they look, yet they also desperately
desire to be just like everyone else in their peer group. It's
a time when the life rafts of so many teenagers become mired
down in the mud of inferiority. Here they've been sailing
through life, having a great time and enjoying the scenery on
the trip when wham! Their craft all of a sudden gets stuck in the
mud. And the harder they work at getting it out, the deeper it
seems to sink in the muck.
I'm convinced that the only thing more difficult than being
an adolescent is trying to parent one. I should know. My wife,
Sande, and I have now walked four children through this process,
and we're getting ready for child number five-Lauren-to
join what I affectionately refer to as "the hormone group."
When our kids get ready to step out onto that raft in the river
of adolescence, everything changes. Most of the parenting rules
that helped us for the first decade of our children's lives become
suddenly outdated because our kids themselves have changed.
And we need to adapt, adjust, and grow in the way we relate to
our kids if we want to maintain a meaningful, healthy, and
strong relationship during this transitional journey from childhood
Sure, adolescence is admittedly turbulent. I joked once that
the primary goal of getting our children through the teenage
years is actually quite simple: to get them into their twenties
without having them kill someone or be killed themselves! If
they can avoid jail in the process, so much the better.
Seriously, you can survive your child's adolescence. Though
this season can be difficult, it can also be very rewarding.
For instance, one afternoon I received a phone call from my
daughter (who was eighteen at the time). She was concerned
about some kids her age-athletes on the school team-who
were smoking dope. She asked me, "Dad, what should I do?"
Yes, the students were violating the school's rules, and that
concerned her. But she was more concerned about the fact that
these kids were doing what wasn't good for them.
I asked her a question in return. "Honey, what do you think
you should do?"
After we talked for a while, I told her, "If you feel as strongly
about this as you're telling me you do, why don't you go to those
kids and tell them what you told me? Talk to them face-to-face.
Tell them you're concerned that they're harming their bodies
and minds by smoking dope."
Even if she chose to do nothing, I knew that watching others
make poor choices would be a lesson learned in itself. All
throughout life, she would see many people do what wasn't
good for them.
And that's why it's so important to teach your child to make
wise choices. So he or she won't get swept over the rapids of peer
pressure. Wise parents will encourage their children in their own
age-appropriate decision making, rather than make decisions for
them. Your child will learn more from, "You made that decision,
and I'm proud of you" rather than, "Well, you should do ."
Here's another example. My son, Kevin, phoned one night.
"Dad, can I talk to you about this chick?"
"What about her?" I fired back, suddenly suspicious.
"Dad, it's nothing like that," Kevin said quickly. (I could just
see the eye roll on the other side of the phone) "This chick
asked me why I was always happy."
I raised an eyebrow. "What did you tell her?"
"That I came from a really neat family and that I loved God."
I smiled. It was great to hear that my son's classmates perceived
him as always happy. But what made me even happier
was when I heard: a) Kevin thought we were a "really neat family"
and b) he was confident enough of his faith to tell a peer
that he loved God. Wow, I thought. We are blessed with a great
kid. Maybe we did something right.
The interesting thing about both of these examples is that
both occurred when our children had left the nest and were at
STEPPING INTO THE RAFT
When exactly do children enter that stage we call adolescence?
I've got a good test for you. You know your sons or daughters
are embarking on this period when you see them slink down
into the car seat as you drive past some kids on the corner. After
all, who wants to be seen with an old fogy like you? Or when
they want to walk across the aisle from you at the mall, rather
than by your side, and they pretend they don't know you (until
the time comes to pay for their purchases, of course).
As soon as you see this near-universal moment, you know
your children are entering that period in life when they desire to
be free from parental restraint. It could begin when your children
are as young as ten, but it almost always strikes by the time
they are twelve or thirteen. And when it happens, you know
that for the next decade, your kids will consider you an "outsider"
to their "real life" and circle of friends. Accept it as a fact,
then move on.
Your children will become more dependent on their peers,
and in reaching toward adulthood, they may even act as if they
regret ever having any association with such "uncool" parents.
This is a normal developmental stage that the wise parent will
have fun with rather than resent. One time one of my daughters
wanted to thank me for something,
so she said, "I'll do anything
"Great!" I said. "Let's go
walk around the mall together
while I wear Bermuda shorts,
black socks, and white tennis
I soon found out that no teenage
daughter's love extends that
far! And to be honest, I didn't expect it to.
Should you be offended? Not if you have a firm grasp of the
"big picture" of the complexities of the adolescent years-including
all the stresses, temptations, styles, insecurities, trends,
influences, etc., that compete for your kids' minds. After all, do
you really want your son or daughter to stay a child forever?
Weren't you glad to get past the diaper stage?
Think back a few more years, to your own teenage years.
How much did you want your mother or father hanging around
with you and your friends on a Friday night?
However, while adolescence is something all parents have
experienced (even if it does feel like we did so way back in the
dim recesses of memory), we make a big mistake if we assume
our children's experience will be just like our own.
What is the world like for today's teenagers? Consider these
During a four-year period, CBS conducted scientific polls of
more than 2,300 students (from various high schools) scheduled
to graduate in the year 2000; CBS also followed and interviewed
two hundred students more closely. The results were interesting-and
In 1997 a surprisingly large 43 percent of students knew
someone who had tried to commit suicide. That number got
even worse by graduation, when 70 percent of students knew
people who had tried to kill themselves.
As freshmen, less than 25 percent knew someone who was
openly gay. As seniors, 66 percent did.
One encouraging sign was that 46 percent of the students felt
their relationship with their parents had improved to excellent
(up from 34 percent). Unfortunately, that still means more
than half were not satisfied at home.
Another study found that illicit drug use doubles during the
adolescent years. While 28.3 percent of surveyed teenagers admitted
to using illegal drugs as eighth graders, over half-54.7
percent-of the students in the twelfth grade made the same
admission. Yet another study found that 39 percent of students
surveyed had used tobacco at least once by the end of seventh
However, in spite of these troubling statistics, today's teenagers
are almost comically optimistic about their financial future.
According to an Ernst and Young survey, 30 percent of
college students polled expect to be millionaires in their forties.
More than one in five expect to retire in their forties or earlier!
More than 60 percent plan on retiring at a younger age than
their parents did. If you can believe it, only 25 percent believe
they will never be millionaires.
Not only are today's kids a little more adventurous and a lot
more optimistic than we were, but the things that would have
made us blush as adolescents are second nature to them.
While I served as assistant dean of students at the University
of Arizona in the seventies, I saw my share of provocative
girlie posters. But now young women have posters of men
striking roughly the same poses-something you never saw
back then, "in my day." I also read with interest an Ann
Landers column in which a mom complained that her fourteen-year-old
son's girlfriend gave him a collage of pictures of
naked women-including side, front, and rear views. Call me
old, but fourteen-year-old girls didn't do that sort of thing
when I was in junior high! (Since I receive so many questions
about sex and dating, I'll address those issues in depth later in
Understandably, this can create misunderstandings-some
serious, some humorous-between the generations. (Those of
you who already have a teenager in the house know exactly
what I'm talking about.) I got a chuckle when professional tennis
player Anna Kournikova-whose knockout looks had
given her great fame-complained during a press conference
organized to promote some undergarments that she endorses:
"I'm not here to talk about my personal life. I'm here to talk
In the world many of us grew up in, husbands and wives
couldn't be seen in the same bed on television, so producers created
the marital double-bed set. Yet most of today's kids have already
seen everything that goes on in bed-and the scenes on
TV many times are not even between husbands and wives.
Today our kids are up against a society that can't figure out
what a marriage really is. Cheating is rampant on college campuses.
Teenagers are bombarded with multiple mixed messages
of what is right and what is wrong-or they are told that everything
is relative. There is no right
or wrong; only what they feel.
Some are raised in homes of
faith; others are not. In the adolescent
years, any religious beliefs
are put in the crucible of fire.
Will those beliefs be destroyed,
or will they be refined in the adolescent's
own heart and life?
Even more, with the horrific attacks on 9/11, war has struck
home. Kids are asking-and rightfully so-"Am I going to be
okay?" "Is our world going to be okay?" "Is it going to last long
enough for me to get married and have kids, or will some great
cataclysm end it all with a big boom, like the movies show?"
It's clear that today's children are growing up in a very different
sort of world than the one we grew up in. And now that
those children are no longer babies (who can be soothed by
their blankies) or toddlers (whose dead goldfish can be replaced
by another just like it) or preadolescents (who can be patched
up readily with a Band-Aid and a hug), your days of controlling
them are over.
What do I mean by that? When your kids were toddlers, you
were able to control their environment and minimize many
negative influences. You controlled, for the most part, what
they watched on television and in videos and the friends with
whom they played.
But when your child becomes an adolescent, those days are
gone. Parenting rules that worked for your babies, toddlers, and
preadolescents no longer work.
You can no longer control your children, but you can still influence
them. You can provide loving boundaries that bring
safety to the twists and turns of the teenage experience.
Running the Rapids will show you how.