Teaching Teenagers

This week seems to be shaping up to be all about knowing and teaching and learning right from wrong. That is to say, all about morality. What I have mentioned yet, though, that bears mentioning in this context, is how morality and teaching through example apply to parenting.

It is tempting, as a parent, to lecture to your teenagers about the right and wrong thing to do in this situation or that one. But then, as the parent, to completely ignore your own rules. Even though it may chafe, you need to start living by the rules you set for your teenager.

If you want your teenager treat friends, family, teachers, adults, etc. with absolute respect, then you have to make sure that you absolutely do the same. No exceptions.

If you want your teenager to refrain from smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and doing drugs, then you have to do the same. No exceptions. Yes, even though it’s legal for you to do some of those things and not for your teenager.

If you want your teenager to be home by midnight, you need to be home by midnight. No exceptions.

If you want your teenager to go to school every day unless they have a fever or are vomiting, you need to go to work every day. Only the same exceptions.

If you don’t let your teenager go out with friends unless you’ve met them, make sure your family has the chance to meet your new friends before you go out with them.

Let your teenager know that you’re living by the same rules you set for him/her. Talk about why you think these rules are important.

Living by your teenager’s rules will have two important outcomes:

  1. Your teenager will see you really think the rules are important, and will have a higher respect for them.
  2. You will think very carefully about what rules you set before you set them. Your rules will probably be more appropriate and thoughtful as a result.

A couple of disclaimers:

  1. You do not, of course, have to live according to changes in the rules because your teenager has had privileges removed. But it’s best if you do, because it will probably give you more time together, and spending time together is what will bring you closer to your teenager.
  2. This mostly applies to older teenagers who can drive and fend for themselves – the 16 to 18 set, not the 13 to 15 set. But it’s good to start thinking about and planning for it even earlier!

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Why should an adult have to live by the rules they set for their teenager? Adults may drink legally, teenagers may not. Adults are, in general, ready to make adult decisions. Teenagers may or may not be.

  2. It’s about setting an example, really. Yes, adults are legally allowed to do things that teenagers are not because they are assumed to be able to make better decisions.

    The problem is that teenagers see things as very black and white, and they see themselves as responsible decision makers (even if their parents do not). So what teenagers need are good examples of decision-making that they can mimic. That can either be engaging in a behavior responsible (drinking alcohol in appropriate situations, for example) or not engaging in it at all (smoking cigarettes, for example).

    This does not mean that teenagers won’t behave irresponsibly around in situations where their parents have modeled appropriate decision-making. Only that the teenager will understand that the rules the parents set down are: 1) realistic, because the parent is following them and 2) have enough moral force that the parent is willing to abide by them.

  3. This rankles.

    Hopefully, teenagers in the 16-18 age set will know by this time that different rules apply to different situations. (I’m thinking here of the great response to kids in many situations … every household is different)

    We know now that brain development isn’t finished until early to mid 20s, so it makes sense that people under that age have protective measures set up, to protect them from making bad decisions.

    On another note, since the number one cause of death for teens is alcohol-related automobile deaths, what parents these days have the gumption to refuse their child a driver’s license until they are 18? it is a singular action that can give that child a much, much better shot at living until the age of 20, but who does it?


  4. Yes – this rankles parents. πŸ™‚

    And the thing is, Ruth, I’m not saying that all parents need to do this all the time. Only that when instituting rules, parents need to consider how those rules would impact their own lives if they had to abide by them. And that most teenagers will respond to rules better if they understand that they are household rules – everyone abides by them – and not just rules that apply only to them.

  5. My parents did this. I mean, they drank in moderation, but they also allowed me to drink in moderation if they were in the room (which is legal). I don’t mean to hold my parents up as the standard or anything, just that I think they did a good job in this area.

  6. Not all teens who are 16-18 drive, you know. Some are just not ready to. I know I certainly wasn’t ready to drive at that age. I wasn’t ready to take on the responsibility of taking my life and the lives of the other drivers on the road in my hands at the time. I knew this and respected myself accordingly. And I’m very glad I did.

  7. Your post is sage advice for parents, Karen, and speaks to the topic of my blog: adultism. Not many people know the word for youth oppression, and not many adults are willing to admit the hypocrisy in their words and actions, especially about the use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. In my research with teenagers, in which I asked the question: “If you could ask your mom or your dad one question and know you would get an honest answer, what question would you ask?” there were many respondents who touched on this hypocrisy. I think it’s a fabulous idea for rules to apply to all family members alike, a strategy which could evoke fabulous conversations between parents and teens as they work through the nuances and discuss the issues that might arise. I love how it levels the playing field and forces the parents to truly consider the rule and its ramifications in their own lives. Rule flexibility would probably be built-in, because most parents would not want to honor a midnight curfew for a special party with friends for themselves and might be more willing to concede the rule for their teen. My research showed that teens want their parents to be real humans and talk about the real issues that confront us all and might cause harm. Finding ways to do that and have these important, ongoing conversations might be enhanced by your ideas about rules. I also appreciate your examples. Terrific!

  8. Parents CANNOT supercede state or federal law. It is NOT legal for parents to allow minors to drink in their presence. Could, then, a minor go into court on charges of auto theft and hand the judge a note stating the s/he had had his/her parents’ permission? Minors may not legally obtain, possess, or use alcohol PERIOD.

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