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The Defiant Ones


Why does respect or the lack thereof seem to be an issue in families with teens and preteens?

We and our friends roll our eyes as we recount conversations with mouthy kids. I think about my sixth-grade son, who for the most part has been an easy child. He gets good grades, he has good friends, he’s interested and involved in different activities, and he is affectionate toward his family. (We’ll ignore the fact that he is painfully disorganized at home and at school.) 

Two or three months ago we noticed he had begun to challenge a variety of family rules. He’s pushing the envelope on bedtimes, chores, appropriate school clothing, the types of movies he is allowed to watch; the list goes on. It was 41 degrees the other morning and he insisted on wearing shorts and a T-shirt to school. Spring fever had been rampant after several sunny days in a row, but come on. A little common sense, please.

If it was just the clothing issue, we’d be OK, but it’s becoming a matter of respect. The notion that “parents know best” doesn’t fly with today’s “tweeners.” Since we’re parenting an adolescent for the first time, we did a little research on developmental milestones for preteens and teens. 

It turns out that gaining autonomy—the ability to make one’s own decisions—is a necessary developmental task for preteens and teens. Dr. David Schaffer, a developmental psychologist at the University of Georgia, notes that conflicts between parents and children of this age occur around the world, even in a culture as unlike ours as China’s. He says that these conflicts occur most often in early adolescence and tend to peter off through the teen years. We love how he phrases what happens when preteens assert their independence: “Sparks will fly!” Amen!

So how do we help our adolescent children achieve autonomy without starting World War III or going stark raving mad in the process? Parents have to loosen the reins slowly, Schaffer says, exerting less control while allowing preteens more privileges as they show their readiness to accept more responsibility. 

Schaffer advises parents to keep rules to a reasonable number and to strive to explain them. Gone are the days when parents could simply declare “because I said so.” Teens need more. If adolescents understand why parents require certain things, they are often more willing to accept it.

In our family, when we take the time to explain our requests to the children, they are usually a lot more willing to comply. For example, a few weeks ago we had scheduled some home repairs and a painting estimate. Our son initially balked when we asked him to clean his room, but when we explained that strangers would be in our home working and assessing the upstairs, he quickly complied.

Schaffer encourages parents to continue to be warm and supportive, even when conflicts arise—and we would add, when teens make mistakes with their new-found autonomy. Patience is a much-needed attribute when dealing with teens and preteens. 

Kelly uses as a role model her mother, who had patience in spades when dealing with her four children—all very close in age, all going through adolescence at about the same time. Kelly’s mother used a healthy sense of humor when dealing with her children, but she also set boundaries and talked about why these boundaries were in place.

Kelly remembers when she was about 12, her mother bought her a new winter coat, a purple parka. When Kelly refused to wear it, expressing her need for autonomy and a budding sense of fashion, her mother didn’t press the issue. Instead, she reiterated the family rule that a coat was a must, and that she would not be buying another one that season. Kelly refused to wear the purple coat, but she used her own money and ingenuity to procure a more stylish jacket at a secondhand store. The rule was obeyed, and she got a taste of independence.

Come to think of it, the situation with Kelly and her mom parallels the one we’re having with our son. Perhaps we need to rethink our stand on shorts in early spring and see what solutions he can find on his own. Maybe parents do know best after all—or grandparents anyway.                                                                 

Alan and Kelly Taylor live in Liverpool with their five children. Kelly holds a master’s degree in family studies; Alan is an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s department of child and family studies.





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