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Movie and essay inspire thoughts on parenting

December 07, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

Marion McPherson: I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.
Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson: What if this is the best version?

My wife and I love movies, and enjoy our weekend afternoons seeing the latest documentaries or dramas at the theater. One of our favorite movies from last year and the film that included the dialogue above was Greta Gerwig’s Academy Award nominated “Lady Bird.” Yes, we relished the story and the acting, but perhaps it was the dialogue between the parents and their twelfth-grade daughter Lady Bird that captivated us. The conversations between parents and teens felt authentic and while we cringed at times to think we may have said something similar to our children, we enjoyed the movie and found it compelling and moving.

As with “Lady Bird,” a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal called “The Right Way for Parents to Question Their Teenagers” by Jennifer Breheny Wallace reminded me of the impact our words have on our children, including the way in which we ask them questions or respond to their queries. Sometimes, even the most innocuous comments may take on a greater meaning than we ever intended; concomitantly, our silences can speak more volumes than we may realize. While it can be tempting at times to throw up one’s hands and say “forget it” during a conversation with adolescents, it is imperative that we remain in dialogue with our teens. As Wallace says, “Teens who disclose their daily activities and inner feelings to a parent tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

As you might expect, how teens share their feelings can vary with age. “Older adolescents, ages 17-18, were quicker to make emotional disclosures in conversations where mothers were highly validating.” In these cases it could be that older teens “just want to know that their parents care;” this in of itself may be enough to stimulate dialogue.

At the other end of the teen spectrum, thirteen and fourteen year-olds “report being less likely to disclose personal information to their parents if they seemed preoccupied, distrusting, dismissive or prone to emotional outbursts.” However, when parents were calm, offered helpful advice, or discussed their own situations, adolescents were more willing to talk. It may be that putting the phone down and paying full attention could provide the starting point for a conversation.

In addition, we need to forego wanting to know too much too quickly. Sometimes, in our perfectly reasonable desire to know more about the lives of our children, we may present what can feel to them like twenty questions. We might have to just wait it out and for the information to come to us in dribs and drabs. What our children ultimately wish is to know that we are supportive, that we also sometimes face difficult situations, and that we are there for them.

This doesn’t mean we should practice an “anything thing goes” school of parenting. Teens want to know that their parents are fully engaged when the topic involves their “safety, morality, and social rules.” It is very destabilizing to teens when there are no boundaries and high expectations are absent. As much as they push back, teens want structure and predictability in their lives.

So, what are the lessons here? Perhaps one is to try and be present in our children’s lives and be available when they need us to listen and give advice when the issues are around their safety, ethical behavior, and how to interact with others. However, the trick may also be to not jump in too quickly or ask too many questions right away. Like so much else in parenting, there will be some trial and error, we will make mistakes, and all we can do is give our very best. However, if we commit to being in communication with our teens and engaging in ongoing dialogue, we will be on the way to helping them become successful young adults.