We must confess that as we began to investigate this question in our focus groups and kid-on-the-street interviews, we expected these highly independent teenagers to lobby hard for hands-off parenting. So we were quite surprised to hear that—almost without exception—the kids don’t want hands-off parenting! Sure, they said they would grumble and fight—sometimes intensely—against parental discipline and boundaries. But deep down, they know they need a loving and firm adult to be in charge—a parent who doesn’t use their authority to “show who’s boss” but to train kids to be in charge of their own lives in just a few short years.
As one teen put it, “I have friends at school; I need parents!”
Although the kids we talked to think it’s wonderful to have a close relationship with their parents, they said friendship should never be the primary goal. Instead, while they remain under their parents’ authority, they expect Mom and Dad to provide wisdom, guidance, and discipline to help them become wonderful people whom their parents will want to be friends with for the rest of their lives.
Truth #1: Teens see your taking charge as a form of love and security.
Even when we know we need to take charge as parents, we sometimes feel uncomfortable exercising authority—or we just get fed up with the resulting drama and tantrums. It often seems easier to simply let things go. But the teens we interviewed said it’s our job to be the bad guy. And when parents sidestep that role, kids feel insecure and even uncared for.
We heard many comments that indicated uneasiness:
“I can’t believe my parents give me a curfew but don’t enforce it. It makes me feel like they don’t really care…like they’ve tuned me out for the night.”
“My dad isn’t a father figure. He tries to be my friend more than my dad. So I can get anything out of him.”
Not that they’ll ever tell you this…
You will probably never hear your kids admit within earshot that they appreciate your discipline. So when you hear complaining instead, remember these words from one representative boy:
“Yeah, I slam the door when I’m punished, and I’ll mutter something under my breath. I’m mad at the moment, but I know even then that they’re doing it for me and for my good.”
Truth #2: If you aren’t in charge, your kids will lose respect for you and discount your authority.
In our interviews and surveys, teens repeatedly admitted that they respect parents who take charge and they disrespect parents who don’t.
With even these few comments, we think you’ll see how loose parenting affects a child’s respect level:
“Parents always give in. They say, ‘You’re grounded,’ and then they forget, and we kids don’t take them seriously. We laugh behind their backs.”
“Parents these days have checked out. They’re too busy, and they’re just hoping things will work out okay without them. I hope I’m not like that as a dad.”
It’s painful to imagine how many parents are misguidedly trying to build a relationship with their children by being a bit lax and are instead ruining the relationship.
Truth #3: Even “good kids” need watchful attention and discipline.
Another reason we may not be taking charge is that we simply don’t think we need to. So many kids look good on the outside—and may even be responsible in most cases. But as we discovered, even good kids sometimes make really bad choices.
An amazing 93 percent said they were “good kids.” Hmm…
Nearly all kids admitted to doing several stupid things at least once. Lying was, unfortunately, nearly universal, and cheating was pretty close. But of those who identified themselves as “good kids,” 46 percent also confessed to having done more than just experiment with trouble.
Specifically, that 46-percent group admitted to committing one or more of the following offenses three or more times: drinking, using drugs (pot and/or harder drugs), wild partying, sneaking out, having sexual intercourse or oral sex, stealing, or driving at scary speeds (more than forty miles per hour above the speed limit), among other things.
Thankfully, if they’re being honest, roughly half of all “good kids” are abstaining from multiple infractions of the worst offenses. But since half aren’t, we need to be watchful. It’s time to wake up to the fact that our own children may be numbered among the good kids experimenting with trouble.
Please hear us: when we identify negative behaviors common among teens today, we are not implying that parents should accept them simply because they’re so widespread. We do, however, strongly believe that as we get wise to the reality of what’s “normal” in our kids’ world, we’ll be more prepared to help them choose a much better path.
Truth #4: Kids appreciate rules more when they understand the reason behind them.
As kids explained their respect for parents who take charge, there was one clear caveat: parents have to be willing to explain why the rules and boundaries exist and not appear arbitrary, so that the teens can understand the reasons for themselves. One teen observed in her focus group, “Because I said so’ only works on very young children.”
On the other hand, kids who don’t get the reason for the rules seem convinced their parents are trying to “control me for no reason.”