I have a relationship with another parent. I get to see another parent, from another separate unit, at close range. This other parent, my single-dad-romantic-interest of the past few years, has four daughters. Three teenagers and one in her early twenties. This man had his children while he was very young; he is not an academic, a teacher, a social worker, a psychologist, a counsellor, a self-professed guru of parenting in any way- he is a builder. And yet, in a world of experts and leaders, people with strings of letters after their names, I have yet to meet another person who has so few difficult moments with their teenagers, who delights in their company and who enjoys such a harmonious household of young people.
So, what does he do that I could copy for my own children, fast approaching teenage years?
An interesting thing that I have noticed about him is that he will never enter the, “Just wait until they’re teenagers!” conversations. He will actually challenge this when he hears it. At first I found this pretty embarrassing because it’s just a bit of harmless solidarity between frazzled parents. But he feels, pretty passionately, that if we accept that we are going to face a nightmare when they are teens, and if we say it over and over again in front of them as they grow up, then we are going to create our own reality. It’s a bit of labelling theory.
The child repeatedly hears from the adults, in adult conversations, from adults that the child loves and respects, that there will come a time when he / she will be hard to handle, moody, difficult, demanding and unreasonable. This kind of banter tends to start being bandied about as early as toddlerhood – “Wow! see how she grabbed that lolly? Just you wait ’til she’s a teenager!” – there’s years of it ahead of any of our children. It’s a generally accepted truth, almost universally unchallenged and it will have a huge effect over time.
Find opportunities to flip this expectation and challenge it. Look for examples of teenagers and older children being wonderful. There are examples everywhere. There’s the American teenager, Mary Grace Henry, who asked for a sewing machine for her 12th birthday and who designed and created headbands to sell in order to pay for one Ugandan girl’s education. By the time she was 17 she was the founder of ‘Reverse The Course’ – a headband making business which donates 100% of profit towards educational opportunities for girls in Uganda and Kenya.
Or, closer to home for me and the builder – the rather wonderful teenager Jonothan Hunt, who made a bench for his community and filmed it as a secret little project to try to get a scholarship.
And what else? Apart from creating a more positive long term view of teenagers and challenging the notion that they are bound to be passive, grumpy and rude. What else can we do?
It takes will power. That’s what my builder tells me about how he thinks he’s managed to have such a happy time with his girls. You need to build the rhythms and routines from a young age, which is hard, but when you have built them in, you can move things around without throwing the kids off balance. It’s the same with teenagers as they get older. Be consistent. And you need do try to do some things without emotion, because if you bring emotion in, you’ll get it back. If you shout, “Why are you ALWAYS leaving your washing on the floor? Do you think I’m your bloody slave?!” you will be likely to get back an equally emotionally charged response. It’s a challenge, but try to meet these mundane moments with less emotion – if you say, “You need to clear your floor, I am happy to do the washing but you must bring it down to me” then there’s nothing to react against. No gloves held out to spar with.
Parents need the emotional maturity not to drop into being 14 again themselves. Try to stay steady for them.
And the last thing he told me on the night I grilled him about parenting: If a child says that they feel a certain way, don’t ever tell them that they don’t. Don’t deny it or ignore it. If they tell you they feel like something, then it’s true, they do feel like it. Even if it’s not your truth; it’s theirs at that moment. It might upset you to hear that they don’t feel happy or that they are pi**ed off with you for something; but it’s their reality at that time and you need to go with it and listen to it or they’ll never feel heard or supported or trusted and that will cause you deeper rifts further down the line.
It’s been a real eye-opener seeing another single parent close up and watching their dynamic. People often raise an eyebrow when I say I’m in a relationship with a guy who has three teenage girls at home, they invariably presume that it will be a nightmare. The reality is that these teenage girls, and their older sister who has already flown the nest, are an absolute delight, and there’s four of them – not just one random sweet kid that chance threw down to him – they must be the result of some fantastic parenting.
And that’s why I’m going to listen to my builder when it comes to raising kids.
((P.S. You can catch my wonderful builder on Instagram (#thevegetarianbuilder) show him some love. He’s very shy))