(Written by Guest Blogger Mrs. Y.)

A commenter on yesterday’s post makes some very good comments about adolescence as a social construct.  I couldn’t agree more that people tend to mature when society prepares them to and that teens can indeed take on adult challenges successfully.  Unfortunately, we live in a society that doesn’t seem to give particular value to maturity.  Every age is built around a lowest common denominator of some kind, and ours gives short shrift to delayed gratification.  Teens who grow up in a society where they are expected to do adult work and take on adult responsibilities before they can enjoy adult perogatives mature faster.

But in the world we inhabit right this second, how should parents help adolescents make the leap into adulthood?

In general, I believe that the more clearly the boundaries are defined between childhood and adulthood, the more incentive a teen has to grow up.  Defining the boundaries includes establishing the distinction between child and adult privileges as well as an understanding of which processes a child must undergo to become an adult.  For example, in my parents’ home, it was made clear to me that within a reasonable period after high school graduation I would be expected to either physically move out or begin contributing financially to the household.  I also knew that none of the privileges of adulthood (such as the ability to have a boyfriend sleep over in my room) would be accessible to me in their home.  While many adult perquisites were available to me as I earned them – I earned the right to curse in front of my parents when I assumed responsibility for operating a lawn mower and then entered the part-time workforce, just as I earned the right to set my own hours for homework and sleep when I consistently earned good grades and got myself ready for school on time – I had a very clear sense of what I would have to do to be considered an adult in my parents’ eyes.  The fact that I was sexually active was not a factor in my parents’ thinking about my adolescent rights in their home.  While my mom made clear that they loved me and would help me if I needed it, she also made it clear that the mere fact of me boinking my boyfriend was not itself grounds for considering me an adult.  Adulthood would come when I assumed personal and financial responsibility for my own food, clothing, shelter, and transportation, and not before.

So what’s a parent do?  Well, you should have already given them the basics about puberty and human reproduction.  If you haven’t, do it or get someone you trust to do it.  Get a book.  Rent videos from your church lending library.  WhatEVER, just do it, no matter how much it makes you feel like a bozo.  And then:

  • Articulate the distinctions between adolescence and adulthood to your kids.  Make it clear that responsible adult behavior, not aping adult vices, is the path to greater freedom and respect in your household.
  • Recognize and reward adult behavior with adult privileges.  Give a later curfew or more access to the car to a teen who assumes greater responsibility for household duties and child or elder care.  Accept your academically self-motivated teen as the prime mover in decisions about selecting and funding his or her higher education.
  • Recognize and teach your teen to respect the legal limits to his or her adult privileges.  Make sure the teen understands his or her responsibilities (and your legal responsibilities as the parent of a minor) as they pertain to driving, sexuality, drinking, smoking, drug use, and lottery tickets.
  • Accept the fact that your teen has a life apart from you and that you cannot control his or her behavior 24 X 7.  At regular intervals, at least once a year as your teen ages, decide for yourself what you think is important enough to make an issue of and what you will just let go.
  • Don’t be afraid to raise value-based questions about your teen’s sexual and social behavior.  If you have life lessons of your own to share, err on the side of giving too much information.  Even if your teen overtly rejects you, your example and your honesty will stay in his or her mind.
  • Do not deny your teen food, shelter, clothing, transport, or expressions of love because of his or her sexual behavior.  Draw a clear distinction between your absolute love for your child and your feelings about his or her sexuality. 

Remember: your goal is to raise an adolescent who will make adult choices in your absence, not one who will be so helpless without (or resentful of) adult intervention that s/he does stupid and dangerous things in the wild.  Your goal is to raise an adult with a backbone who is capable of informed self-preservation.  Now go forth and do good.  And if you want more of this kind of advice – or ideas on how to broach sexuality topics with kids – come see me at Stork! Stork!.  Karen, thanks for letting me play with your blog!