I happen to enjoy parenting teenagers. They’re the bomb dot com (Are we still using that as a positive reference?). They straddle childhood and an adult world, absorbing and contributing to both. They are at once thoroughly confused and utterly aware. They are poetry one moment and a twangy, desperate country tune the next.
These contradictions mean that parenting teens requires more mental energy than parenting the younger ones. Therefore, it’s a good idea to start prepping for the teen years when your kids are young. That way, you can at least reduce the physical and logistical energy normally spent raising children in order to make room for all that thinking and feeling you’re going to have to do.
Here are a few tips for young families to start now:
1. Teach your kids how to do their own laundry. You might think this means you need to have them start helping you when they are fresh out of the womb, perhaps by having them sit on the dryer and put clothes into the washer with you. You might also be one of those people who puts each grain of rice into the pot one by one — because, really, isn’t that what it feels like when a 13 month old helps with laundry?
They’ll learn a lot just from watching you do 37 loads of laundry each week. When they are responsible enough to wipe their own behinds in a manner that leaves a respectable, but not impervious, skid mark (between the ages of 5 and 47), you can teach them to sort their own clothes by colors on their bedroom floor. Let them do that each time you do laundry. When they master sorting, they can start putting away their own clean, folded laundry (5-7). Once they’ve mastered putting their clothes away neatly (and by neatly, I mean anything from stacked in even, color-coded, labeled rows to wadded up and shoved into the drawer without completely breaking it), they can start doing every bit of their own laundry (for my kids, this was around 8-10). It might be a while before they are doing the laundry well, but you’ve got time before they are teens.
I realize I am spending an inordinate amount of time on this one seemingly little thing. Do not be fooled. The magnitude of this one little thing is stunning. Laundry is a soul-sucking, never-ending task. I have so much extra brain space and adoration to devote to my teens now that the only laundry I have to do each week is one basket of clothing and one basket of linens. Plus, I never have to deal with teen skid marks (I’m not saying they’re there; I’m just saying that, if they are, I don’t have to know it or see it). That makes me love them all the more.
2. In the same vein, teach them to thoroughly clean their own bathroom. Nothing destroys the glow of not having to deal with your teenagers’ skid marks than having to clean up after their toileting habits.
Teen pee is the devil’s liquor. It’s not their fault. Blame it on hormones.
You will not want to face them when they are trying to tell you how they need your advice if you are thinking about how you had to face their sticky, molten pee gelatinized to the base of the toilet earlier that day.
Take a sunny afternoon in spring when everyone wants to hurry up and go outside and do a lesson on cleaning the bathroom. They can handle this around their ‘tween years. Try it any earlier and you’ll just have sticky, molten, gelatinized pee spread all over the floor with a once-clean hand towel or your favorite shirt, topped with heaping dollops of Scrubbing Bubbles in a pretty pattern. You can trust me on this.
My point is that you will not have the energy to be the non-judgmental, kind, unconditionally loving, funny-enough-to-bond-but-not-so-funny-it’s-awkward, wise, un-parenty parent your teens need you to be on a moment’s notice if you’ve spent all morning scraping their pee off of everything.
Can I get another “pee”? PEE!
3. Teach them to prepare meals. You know how you feel like you spend every waking hour thinking about what you’re going to feed your little kids? And then you spend every spare moment you are with your kids preparing to feed them, feeding them, and then cleaning up after feeding them?
Teenagers can eat like 20 times more food than that.
My husband and I make the occasional breakfast (on weekends), about 6 dinners a week, and maybe a lunch here and there for the whole family. Though we eat together often, we leave a lot of their own food preparation up to them (including them adding their own sides when there isn’t enough food for their liking — which, for the fastest growing child, is every moment of every day). This accommodates their different tastes, their wildly different appetites, and the college-dorm-like-hours their appetites seem to keep.
Now that everyone satisfies their own appetites for the most part, we enjoy very pleasant meals together with lots of sharing and bonding. And I rarely ever think about what I will be feeding them next. Two words: brain space!
4. Start apologizing to them from the moment they show up in your arms.
“Mommy’s sorry she had that Tequila before she knew you were coming.”
“Daddy’s sorry he can only think of the lyrics to 90’s sitcoms when you need a lullaby.”
“Mommy’s sorry she had a conniption when she found the contract she worked on for 3 months torn into little pieces and floating in the toilet.”
You understand. But, seriously — don’t talk in the 3rd person like I just did after they’re about four months old. It’s unseemly.
Teens, more than perhaps anyone you will ever know in your life, need to hear us apologize. They need to know that, like them, we are flawed and, often unlike them, we can own up to it without provocation. They need to see us wrestling with raw emotions and battling our inner demons (but not too much; too much will knock them off their axes. Do it just enough. It takes some trial and error, but you’ll get it by the time they’re past this stage. Then they’ll be all, “Gosh, mom, why so emotional?).
They need to see us struggling because they are struggling and all of their friends are struggling and we are their beacon of hope. Furthermore, we will stink at parenting them often and they need to know that our mistakes are more about us than them. Finally, we want them to come to us when they blow it big time — because big time teen mistakes happen and the stakes are so much higher than when your toddler drew all over Grandma’s car with a permanent marker.
Modeling apologizing and forgiveness from such an early age that it becomes second nature will make it easier for your teens to come to you for help. It will also help reduce the future impact of your parenting mistakes.
5. Hang out with your little kids, doing nothing in particular, often.
Teenagers are super clever. They can spot a disingenuous parenting move from a mile away. If you’ve never tolerated listening to your pre-tween’s epic monologues about who got to play which Harry Potter character at the park, they will not believe that you actually want to know about the teen drama swirling around them.
I know how it is. As parents, we spend an inordinate amount of time on tasks that do little to promote bonding. I’m not about to tell you to turn some of those tasks into bonding moments. As cute as a toddler singing “Let it go” on the toilet might be, it doesn’t feel like bonding when there’s a line for the stall and your toddler cannot for the life of her sing and pee at the same time. Putting on shoes? Nobody should be forced to bond while trying to put shoes on a squirmy child’s mud-encrusted feet. Board games don’t even begin to constitute bonding until everyone, including the parents, can lose with some dignity (between the ages of 5 and 47).
Save the bonding for times when there is little else on the agenda and little to no cost involved (we parents can become more forceful of the bonding when we’ve spent money on it, can’t we?). Play, wrestle, snuggle, sing together, read, chat, ride bikes, take a walk, hold hands. If you do this often enough before your children hit adolescence, they will not be shocked (or terrified) when you want to take a walk or have a chat during adolescence. It will feel natural and safe, two vital components of fruitful bonding.
Parenting teenagers requires a lot more mental energy, persistence, patience, kindness, humor, extroversion, and forgiveness than parenting any other age. And money. So much more money. But teenagers are not the monsters they are often portrayed to be. Monsters don’t really care who they knock down and tear apart in their path. Teenagers do. They care about everything and everyone. They care so much it often seems like they don’t care at all (this logic follows the logic I have for warthogs: they’re so ugly, they’re cute). They are overwhelmed by the weight of a world they don’t feel ready to fix (even if for some, that world only includes their closest friends or their little brother). This makes some of them shut down; others withdraw or act out; and others function in constant over-drive.
In order for us to be fully there for them during all this, we have to take some things off our own plates and prepare the relationship ahead of time. A few chores and a couple of parenting tips might seem insignificant when they are little, but trust me when I say that doing these now can make a huge difference for you and your kids when you all are plowing through the teen years later.
And if all else fails, when your teens are distant or cranky, stand in the middle of the house and scream, “Skidmarks!” It totally softens the moment.