Torah Musings: What teens wished we knew part twoBy
What teens wished we knew part two
“When I’m a parent, I’ll never…”
As a teen, I found myself saying, “When I have children, I’ll never _____,” so many times I lost count.
Call it modeling or human nature, as parents most of us end up doing the very things our parents did, including many we swore we never would do. As swiftly as we forget our promises, we also forget what it felt like to be a teenager. Therefore, I interviewed teens across the nation regarding challenges they face. I posed questions on some of the toughest topics relating to parental boundaries, such as friends, dress codes, curfews, and phone usage.
I presented teens with two phrases, asking them to fill in the blanks:
I wish my parents _____.
If I were a parent, I would _____.
Their answers were surprising, and I noticed an interesting pattern.
Friends are of utmost importance in this stage of life and can be more influential than parents or teachers. As one child put it, “Your social status is everything. There literally is nothing else right now.”
One teen bemoaned, “I wish my parents would let me spend more time with my friends.”
When questioned further on the influence of his friends and parental approval, his insight surprised me. “I would give my kids boundaries if I didn’t think their friends were good influences. But I wouldn’t strip them away completely.”
As a child, he wanted total freedom, yet as a potential parent, he agreed he would also set limits.
One teenaged girl described how her parents’ rules included wearing skirts at all times, even at a public pool. She lamented, “I wish my parents understood my perspective on religion. We don’t really see eye-to-eye, especially regarding clothing.”
I asked her, “How would you dress if it were completely up to you?”
She answered confidently, “I would wear a bathing suit on vacation by a pool or beach.”
But as a parent, I countered, would she want her daughter to dress in that fashion?
I was utterly shocked to hear her dramatic response. “No! Definitely not!” She didn’t have a practical suggestion, but added, “I don’t know a solution, but a little leeway would be nice.”
One teen mentioned, “I wish my mom wouldn’t text me when I’m out to make sure I’ll be back by a certain time.”
I asked her how she would handle curfew if she were a parent. “I would totally check up on my kid, but at a certain age there should be a level of trust. I would not demand that she come home if I know she is in a safe place. I would make certain places off limits and then trust that my kids hold to that. There are a lot of good places to be, but I would set a reasonable curfew.”
Despite begging for freedom, what teens really want is someone who will care enough to set limits. One described, “Some parents are laissez faire, and they don’t bother parenting at all, it’s…like they don’t care. I’ve seen how the children of these parents turn out and what they do. Most of the time they end up with the wrong crowd and get themselves into trouble because there is no one to tell them no. My parents do check in and it makes such a big difference.”
I asked her if she thought those kids felt uncared for.
“Oh, for sure! I’ve had someone say to me, ‘I wish my parents were like yours and checked in on me more. Then I’d feel like they actually cared about me or were concerned.’”
A young teen emphatically said, “I just wish my parents would give me a phone!”
His knee-jerk reaction had a reason behind it, as he admitted that he faced social challenges because his parents would not allow him to have an iPhone.
I asked him, “Would you want this phone for unlimited screen-time at all times?”
“No, no, no!” was his genuine response! “I wouldn’t want my parents to change their values at all!” When I asked him to offer a solution, he responded, “A little bit of flexibility would be great.”
One teenage girl even admitted that she didn’t mind her parents checking her phone. “I think every parent should be doing that.”
Every teen wished their parents gave them more freedom, while simultaneously answering the ‘If I were a parent _____’ phrase with eerily similar boundaries as their own parents. How, then, is it that within moments, teens vacillated between wanting less boundaries to appreciating boundaries?
Solly Hess, who worked exclusively with teens for seven years as a director for NCSY, answers this question beautifully. “The word ‘no’ is foreign to a teen. By nature, they’re pulling away, rebelling, and disregarding structure or boundaries. One of the greatest challenges I faced when working with unaffiliated students was explaining Shabbat. It can easily be seen as a bunch of NOs and DON’Ts.
“Try likening Shabbat to their favorite game, however, and their view changes. Explain the benefits of staying within the lines, why the structure of Shabbat is so carefully drawn, why the boundaries are so important. Explain that much like the game, the boundaries are there to fully focus you on the experience, that the rules are there to make sure the game works and flows properly. Then they understand structure, they appreciate it, and they recognize how essential it is.”
In a similar vein, every time I asked a teen what they wanted, the answer was invariably more freedom. Yet, when I asked them to act as though they themselves were a parent, suddenly boundaries became obvious and necessary. Teens actually appreciated boundaries, and when presented with the right perspective, agreed they too would enlist similar boundaries as their parents.
Kids crave structure, and as hard as it is, the word ‘no’ is essential to providing it. They strongly wanted their parents to maintain their values but were also asking for some flexibility within normal reason.
Essentially, the desires of teens are reflective of basic human desire. Hashem bestowed upon us free will—with limitations. Yes, the world is at our fingertips, but how far we can stretch is limited by our physical boundaries. Hashem, our spiritual parent, gifts us freedom within boundaries.
Consider incorporating this concept when parenting our teens. Teenagehood is an emotionally and socially difficult time interspersed with natural rebellion. We can and should stick to our values when negotiating with our teens. We must determine and commit to our limits, while allowing for as much flexibility as possible within that range. Even though teens adamantly feel that boundaries feel restrictive, ultimately, most feel bad for teens whose parents were too carefree. Maybe the phrase “I would never,” really means a sheepish, “Well, I guess I would do that, too.”
 Solomon Hess is currently a Director for the Orthodox Union and a motivational speaker and coach.
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