My teenage daughter was seeing a movie one night with a group of friends. When I called her to coordinate her Uber ride home, she didn't answer. Finally, two hours later, she answered her phone and told me she was on her way home. Something felt off.
I let her know how worried I had been not to hear back from her. The next morning she came into my bedroom and said, “Mom, I wasn't really at the movies last night. I was at a kickback.” For those parents who haven't heard, it's basically a casual party with a bunch of teenagers "kickin’ back." Original, huh?
We live in a mostly peaceful, fairly suburban wedge of a pretty large and sometimes very tough city. I knew that raising my kids in a diverse setting meant they’d encounter situations that required skill to maneuver. I needed to make sure they could make good decisions on their own.
So, starting when my children were in preschool, we’ve been playing a game in which I would describe a situation, then ask whether it was a health or safety issue.
Can you eat a pile of candy for dinner? No, sorry, this is a health issue.
Can you cross the street without holding my hand? Sometimes, depending on how busy the street is.
Any issue that fell outside the bounds of health or safety was one they were entitled to decide for themselves.
Can you go to school with your hair in knots and unbrushed? Sure, if your fashion sense is to look horrible, so be it!
These are my parenting parameters — these rules determine when I step in and when I lean back. So when my daughter told me that she had lied about the kickback, I went back to that rubric of health and safety. I calmly explained to her, “Sweetie, if I don't know where you are, I can't keep you safe. And that can create a dangerous situation.”
I ran a few scenarios by her: What would've happened if the party had gotten rough? Or if you started to feel sick? Because of the lie, you might’ve felt hesitant to call me and ask for help. This is a safety issue.
I did not shame or interrogate her — I also told her that while I consider her “very smart and capable,” life can deliver curveballs, and I want to help her catch them. She agreed to always tell me exactly where she was going, including the address, in the future.
I told a friend of mine, who is also the mother of a teenager, what went down. She asked me repeatedly why I didn't punish my daughter for lying. The thought hadn't occurred to me. My focus was on keeping the lines of communication open.
Subconsciously I must’ve felt that harsh discipline would give her reason to shut me out and lie again to get back at me; I wanted her to learn to make her own decisions and always come to me when those decisions were difficult.
Teenagers need to individuate from their parents and test out their own theories, rules, and values. But how do we make a space for individuation while keeping them safe?
According to Advocates for Youth: “A major study showed that adolescents who reported feeling connected to parents and their family were more likely than other teens to delay initiating sexual intercourse. Teens who said their families were warm and caring also reported less marijuana use and less emotional distress than their peers. … When parents and youth have good communication, along with appropriate firmness, studies have shown youth report less depression and anxiety and more self-reliance and self-esteem.”
If we want our kids to talk to us about all their challenges — including sex, drugs, and situations in which they might feel preyed upon — and we want to impart our wisdom to open ears, we must work on making communication a two-way street.