Whatever changes you have witnessed in parenting your children, nothing quite prepares you for the monumental transition when your child crosses puberty and becomes a teen. (And just to be clear, when I say puberty, I am not just talking about hormonal and physiological changes in their bodies – which are enormous in and of themselves.)
At this time, your teens are leaving the world of “being” and entering a world of “doing.” And, they are likely to remain in this world for the next 50 or so years. This is a major threshold. Teens are closing the door on a “family focused life” and opening the door toward “impassioned action.”
“There is an urgency to make something of oneself, to plunge into the social world, to fire up new varieties of relationships, to leap into love and heroic adventures, to take on risky and unfamiliar responsibilities, to choose a direction in life, to seek a mate or lover, to develop a style, a flair, a name, a gig, a special talent, a distinctive personality.” Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul
I use the metaphor of “closing the door on family” quite literally – I mean just that. I knew my son had entered this new life stage when I literally found the door closed, shut tight. Yes, his bedroom door. It seemed that one day my son was happy to jump into bed and cuddle with me and my wife, and the next day, I was knocking on a door that was shut, felt like it was slammed in my face. And, the answer that greeted my plea for attention was not very welcoming, “Whaaat?” I assume the tone of this response is familiar to some of you, yes?
I was so sure this wasn’t going to happen to us. Years ago, my friends with older children would say, “If you think this is hard, just wait until he’s a teen. ” I said to myself, “Not us, it’s going to be different for us, we are so close with our kids” Well, there I stood on the outside, the other side of a closed door, begging for entry, pleading for a little crumb of connection. “What is it?……I am reeeeally busy……. Please don’t touch me!…….Can you go now, pleeeease?” Ouch!!! Right?
So lets get this part clear, if you didn’t know it already, now you know, you are not alone, this is happening to parents of adolescents everywhere. And, as personal as it may feel, they will criticize you, make fun of your personal and physical traits, and question and degrade your values and way of life. It just has absolutely nothing at all to do with you. In fact, your teens are not trying to push you away at all. Rather, they are trying to push themselves away. They are working to shove off from the familiar, from the safety of their home and family to a wider social world where they can fashion an authentically unique personality, and begin to become whole themselves.
So, our teens are quite healthily pushing themselves away from us. How can we, as parents, re-vision our connection with them? How can we let them push away from us while at the same time stay close to them? This is the difficult question I hope to shed some light on today.
When I left my career in finance, my wife and I and our three boys started a small family farm. Today, we tend to 40 laying chickens, 3 goats, 3 cows, 2 beehives, and vegetable and fruit gardens. We make maple syrup in the winter and slaughter our own chickens for meat in the fall.
There is a lot of work to do everyday to keep it all going. The biggest job, by far, is the 6:30am daily milking of our cow, Tara. Every day it has to get done, there is no choice, and there is no negotiation. So, each of my boys helps me one morning each week. This gives me a chance to connect and do purposeful work with each of them. And, while we don’t talk a lot about life, we do solve problems on the farm, we fix the fence, muck the stalls and generally keep everything clean and tidy – good honest work, and a feeing of accomplishment each day. In the afternoon, my three boys do the animal chores together – a great time for them to connect with each other, ok, and to bicker sometimes.
I know all of this is way more responsibility than they signed up for, and they have a hundred other places they’d rather be, but this is our life. And, we stand firm and ensure that this meaningful and purposeful work is part of our life together – it’s a place for keeping our connection strong.
Media has an incredibly strong hold on our children’s lives, and our own lives for that matter. In our home, we limit how much time our son is on Facebook and in front of the television screen. A particularly hated rule is that all Internet use must take place downstairs. The pushback is incredible and the constant negotiation for additional privilege is exhausting. Of course, we must abide by similar limits ourselves, lest we be labeled hypocritical, and this, of course, can be personally challenging. However, we stand firm knowing that the increased connection opportunities for all of us outweigh any inconvenience.
With our boys running to their rooms, out with friends, on their cell phones, we could go days without seeing or talking to them. But they do need to eat every day. Having dinner together as a family has always been a basic value in our home, and has ensured that we have real quality time together, and that they eat good home-cooked meals. We share some gratitude before eating and try to keep the conversation meaningful and inclusive for all. There are tons of social opportunities available to us all each day, other places we want to be. Yet, we stand firm that other activities can almost always come after our family has shared a meal and time together.
Standing firm is much more than having hard and fast rules. It is risking being who we really are and doing what we truly value. More than anything, standing firm is being a role model, ourself, of authenticity, integrity, and emotional transparency.
“Be the adult you wish your children to become.” Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Remember, our teens are choosing an initial direction in life, deciding what is of value to pursue. Of course, it is toward us that they will look too first and foremost for clues on how to do this. The clearest way we can remain relevant and engaged with them, is to make certain we are moving, in our own way, toward our individual passion and purpose in life. This requires a great deal of self-reflection, inner work and vigilance as we move toward what we want to create in our own lives.
Back on the farm, my 14-year old son is not shy about laying out his extreme judgment at my, often pathetic, effort at farming. About once a month, he says, “This is so stupid, we make nothing form these cows, and they keep us tied to our house, we can’t even go away from home for two days.” His judgment stings, yet it also makes me really think about what I am doing and why I am doing it, what part the farm and animals play in my life. And, while he may never raise animals himself, I know this experience has helped him to define who he is and what is of value to him, and yes, move away from me in a healthy way. And, we still milk together every Friday morning, like it or not. Truth be told, I often find him singing while he does his chores. He is pushing away from me and we are staying connected.
I think you have the basics. Now, I want to give you the bad news and the good news: Please do not try any of this alone – you will need help!
Somebody smart once said it takes a village to raise a child. To raise a teen, I believe it takes, not only a village, but also a well-connected extended family. Unfortunately, as a culture, we are largely disconnected from our village and even more disconnected from our original families.
As recently as 50 year ago for most of us, our family lived all around and about us, if not in the same home, at least in the same village or town. Our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers – we all basically lived together. And, while this had its own challenges, it likely made the work of childrearing easier. You can imagine your teen, fed up with you, heading off to Uncle John’s place.
If you still have that in your life, you’re fortunate. For most of us, I would bet most are already largely disconnected, both physically and emotionally from our immediate and extended family.
The good news is that there is a solution. People say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. In my home, we made our friends into our family. We began adopting our family from the people with whom we already liked to share our lives. If I could recommend only one thing to you today, it would be this – create and adopt a close and connected extended family. And, make it real!!!
First on the adoption list are uncles and aunts for your children. These are your dearest friends – the people that you already love. What could be better? (Learn more about Adopting Extending Family in my post from Nov, 2012.)
One of my son’s “uncles” is his best friend’s father, and, a good friend of mine, too. And, while my son couldn’t care less when I’m talking, he sure can’t get enough of what this guy has to say. This hurts sometimes, and I can take it personally, but more often I am grateful that at least my son is talking to someone who shares my values.
Other important “uncles” and “aunties” are the young men and women in their 20’s and 30’s who you want your children to grow up to be like someday. When you find them, invite them over. Watch your teens interest light up as they question a young adult about what they are doing with their lives, or hearing the stories about what it was like for them as teens – how did they do it. They see these adopted uncles and aunts respecting their elders, helping out around the house, loving and being affectionate with their partners – I am talking great role-modeling here.
So, in my family, we have a new tradition; we have regular “extended family” dinners. Every few weeks, uncles and aunts are invited for dinner. We have a big potluck together. We share a meal and, afterwards, play a bunch of fun games together. Without the uncles and aunts in the house, my boys would be off and shut in their rooms or, worse, at an inappropriate and unsupervised party. Sound familiar?
On our “family dinner” nights, we all stay up late playing and laughing together – there is nowhere any of us would rather be. As parents, we remain relevant in our teen’s lives. For our teens, they are making meaningful connections with role models to whom they just might go when they are faced with real challenges and real questions. Most of all, our teens clearly feel something solid to push away from.
Finally, here is the very best news: When there is some semblance of original or adopted extended family in place, you, as a parent, now are able to give your teen child the greatest gift – a rite of passage experience that fully acknowledges them at the threshold they are crossing and for the authentic adolescents they are becoming.
Now, folks, this is no earthy, crunchy, Hudson Valley, hocus-pocus. Rites of passage have been happening on Earth in indigenous cultures for the last two hundred thousand years. It is just in the last few hundred years that we have lost this birthright as humans in our culturally poor society. And, if we are to have healthy lives, we would do best to begin to reclaim these rites of passage and recreate them for our times.
Here is the really hard part – as a parent, you cannot initiate your own children, it just doesn’t work. You are too emotionally involved. You need extended family and you need connected community. Lucky for us, this kind of community already exists here in this valley.
Early adolescents need a testing ground, a place of healing and a mirror other than, and wider and deeper than, the one provided by mom and dad or, for that matter, anything found in the village.” Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul
If you have not already seen it, Peter Ferland’s documentary, “Tending Fires – Alone in the Woods for 24 Hours” tells the story of a rite of passage ceremony that took place here in the Hudson Valley a few years ago.
My son was one of the seven boys initiated that weekend. He had prepared himself during the previous year for his time alone. And, on a long weekend, at the end of the summer, he and the other boys were taken from their home by their uncles and brought up on a mountain where they would sit for more than 24 hours with a fire that they would tend alone. A community of 23 men held the space for those boys at the base of that mountain. And the parents of those boys sat vigil by a fire back at home. During that time alone, each boy faced the ordeal in a different and unique way. Each boy was acknowledged in their need to push away from the familiar, and was supported and seen in doing so. And each young adolescent who came off that mountain was welcomed back to his family and his community stronger and more empowered in who they were. Powerful!
Just to summarize, I think it is possible to let your children push away from you and remain deeply connected to them at the same time. And, I hope some of the stories I shared with you today inspire you as you parent your teens.
In 2004, David co-founded and, today, is the Executive Director of Wild Earth, where he seeks to help regenerate healthy community culture and create opportunities for people to connect with themselves, each other and the Earth. Prior to founding Wild Earth, David worked as a wealth advisor on Wall Street for twelve years before realizing a life dream – fully sharing in the care and parenting of his three children, and creating a small family farm. Today, the Brownsteins raise dairy cows, goats, chickens, bees and vegetables in season. David also maintains an active counseling practice called Root Connections, where he focuses on helping individuals, couples, groups and business leaders identify and manifest their unique vision. More about David's work.