February 25, 2020

Heroic parents, we salute you!

Being a parent is a heroic act. Being a parent of a teenager sometimes makes us feel less than heroic. Indeed, we, as parents, often become an embarrassment.

Congratulations to those of us parents who “embarrass” our kids in a manner that shows how much we love them.

To parents who “embarrass” teenagers by actually walking into the home where your children’s friends are holding a party in order to meet the parents or supervisors, nice going! To parents who supervise use of the Internet, well done! To parents who demand a curfew, regular accountability for a child’s whereabouts, way to go! And to parents who say “No” when recognizing that a reasonable boundary needs to be set, you have engaged in a heroic act.

Yes, you will get the “eye roll”; yes, you will get the “I don’t believe you are actually doing this to me”; yes, your teen might be upset. But, in a private moment years hence, when reflecting on his or her teenage years, your child might say, “Well, yes, my parents embarrassed me at the time, but I certainly knew they cared about my well-being. My friends’ parents didn’t check up on them; they thought I was the lucky one.”

Each high school year brings its own special parenting challenges. Ninth grade is the big transition from middle to high school. It is the year when some teens believe that going to a raucous party is the high point of what it means to “really be in high school.” It is a time of increased independence, yet it is also a time that demands tremendous parental focus to help your kids navigate the transitions, the social pressures, the new academic challenges and the process of really becoming independent by solving their own problems with teachers and friends.

Tenth grade brings most teens into striking distance of the magical age of 16 — more universally understood as the “Age of the California Driver’s License.” It is the moment some of us provide our callow youth with 3,000 pounds of metal to maneuver on city streets. It is a time we learn the true meaning of prayer and hope. It is a time to balance our kids’ need for independence with close supervision and a recommitment to curfews and to saying “No.” (The “No” often deserves some careful parental reasoning to convince the child of its wisdom; and sometimes the answer is simply “No, because I said so” — and that is also OK.)

By 11th grade, something miraculous happens: Some of our children begin reading the newspaper, or take a serious interest in the world beyond. We now get two years while they are still at home to engage in fabulous discussions about life, politics, religion, values and so forth. For those parents who were especially blessed, this moment may have happened at an earlier age.

There are no absolutes in child rearing, just some general guesses and a vague sense that things are all right. Most of the time, they are. From a school perspective, the big discussion about college begins in earnest in 11th grade. This is fun, daunting and demands parental clarity and balance. The key is the right “fit” for your child. In other words, fit the college to the child, not the child to the college. The college guidance counselor now becomes a very good friend.

By 12th grade, we have arrived. But where? There is nervousness about college admissions; there are sometimes the beginnings of separation anxiety on the part of both parents and children. The child wants to leave home (but, deep down is not sure; having laundry done and meals prepared is starting to look really good).

For parents, feelings are mixed: We are proud of our newly independent kids and their achievements; we want them to go off to the world, yet there is the “tug of emotion.” Not to worry: while they are in college most of us are still paying the tuition, car insurance, plane fares home and cell phone bills. They are not really gone, just temporarily absent with constant reminders of their presence, monthly.

But, for now, we still have the entire year together. Be sure not to miss some form of “tuck-in time.” Debrief, ask about their days, their vision for their futures, their thoughts on life. This is a delicious time not to be wasted. And, by the way, as prom approaches, the children’s job is a final bonding moment; the parents’ job is safety. “After-Prom” parties, meaning high school seniors going to hotels or clubs after midnight, are generally a fabulous opportunity for parents to say “No.” Invite small get-togethers at your home for a few good friends and a great breakfast in the morning.

Without a doubt, parenting is an art. More precisely, it is a strategic art. Decisions you make today have great impact over time. The emotion or demands of the moment may engender immediate decisions that have negative results.

Let’s support each other in thinking long-term; let’s partner as a true “village” and send a solid message of love to our kids by setting clear boundaries, by saying “No” when called for and showing our children how much we really do care

Indeed, parenting is a heroic act — and I have loved (almost) every minute.

Bruce Powell is founding and current head of New Community Jewish High School. The youngest of his four children is still a teenager.