With children, as opposed to teenagers, winning is very simple: Bed on time, eat your greens, etc. And losing is pretty straightforward, too. Permanent ink on your new white sofa, scratch marks in the big screen TV, etc. You name it, we have all lived through that horror movie.
However, when your child enters the strange "Twilight Zone" that is teenage-hood, normal rules of combat are out the window.
Let me explain how it can be a “win” when your daughter shows you the new earring that isn’t in her ear, or your son screams that he hates you because you didn’t give him the keys to the car after he got a DUI.
Let’s assume you made it abundantly clear to your daughter beforehand that no piercings are allowed, except in your ear, with a maximum of two earrings distributed evenly between both ears, symmetrically placed.
Clear? Obviously not.
I recently met with a friend who is well versed in the ways of teenaging. His eyes twinkled when he told me how pleased he was when his daughter called him, rather nervously, to tell her father about her new nose stud.
When I say “pleased” I don’t mean happy.
There are only two kinds of mischief your teenager is engaging in. The mischief you know about and the mischief you don’t. There is no third category called: no mischief.
Within the category of mischief you know about are two important sub-categories: the things you find out on your own, and those your teenager tells you.
Finding out on your own is like the news on the economy: you have no idea if this is the end, the beginning or the middle. On the other hand, anything your teenager tells you is a victory. It’s huge, and it speaks volumes.
It says, “I have to listen to my parents, and when I don’t, I have to tell them about it.” But maybe the most important thing it says is, “This is the worst thing I am doing.”
That’s the win! That’s a touchdown, that’s a home run, that’s winning the lottery, that’s jumping up and down on the bed in your pajamas and denting the ceiling.
As long as no one sees you doing it that is. Especially your teenager.
To understand this, we need to go back to the pre-teen years. Up till then the rules of the house were pretty simple, don’t talk to strangers; make sure you are wearing clean underwear when you go out; call me when you leave, call when you are on the way, and call when you get there; oh, and don’t forget, don’t talk to strangers.
Then the early teen situations arrive. Parties, friends, MTV, etc., You start scrambling for rules and lines to draw. It’s easy to articulate the really bad stuff they shouldn’t do, but there is so much gray, it’s hard to determine.
A common mistake parents make is only making a big deal out of the really bad stuff. A nose stud is not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean your daughter is going to join a rap band and travel the mid-west meeting red-necks and drinking bad beer and other socially awkward experiences she will need to explain to her grandchildren.
So parents tend to let it go, save their battles for a biggee. However, this is a biggee mistake. In Judaism we call it a “fence.” As in, the alarm goes off when you cross the rope, not when you touch the painting.
By making fences at least two levels away from what you are really afraid of, you have succeeded in keeping your children safe.
My friend understood that. But he also understood his reaction was key in determining what her next move would be.
Have you ever “over sold?” Have you ever over screwed a screw? Have you ever added too much salt? This is one of those moments where you need exact measurement.
Under emphasize your daughter’s mistake and she will try the next fence. Over emphasize and she might very well never tell you anymore. It needs to be just enough that makes her realize she doesn’t want to do worse than this, and this is pretty bad.
It must emphasize your displeasure while making clear that you are in no way rejecting them personally.
Is this the end of it?
Hah! It’s just the beginning.
Welcome to teenaging. Fun, isn’t it?