10 things your teen needs to know

Here's how to give your teens the skills they need to succeed on their own

Helen Redfield,* a professor of business and computer studies at a southwestern Ontario college, looks forward to meeting a fresh crop of students at the start of each new academic year. What she doesn’t relish is fielding calls from moms and dads phoning to check in as though their kids were in grade five. Some parents have even shown up on the first day of school to make sure their 18-year-olds can find their classes. But Redfield is most alarmed by the fact that the teens actually tolerate it. “The students are not the least bit horrified,” she says. “They expect it.”

We all want our kids to be independent, but our actions often accomplish the exact opposite. “When we do too much for our teens, we rob them of the opportunity to learn those skills for themselves,” says Gary Direnfeld, a social worker in Dundas, Ont. “I see a lot of kids who are ill-equipped to handle pressure because they’ve been spoon-fed. We need to make teenagers more accountable for their own behaviour.”

Parenting speaker and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn, who lives in Vancouver, says many parents expect their kids to spontaneously know how to use the microwave or washing machine as soon as they reach their teens. But that’s not how it works. “Teaching independence is not something you start when they’re 14,” says Lynn. “It starts with having them dress themselves when they’re three, and help pack their bags for camp when they’re nine. You can’t do everything for them for 12 or 14 years and then suddenly change the rules.”

With that in mind, here are 10 things teens should be able to do for themselves before they leave home, and suggestions on how to impart the wisdom. Read on for more.

*Names changed by request.

1. Wash their own clothes

“By the time kids are 13 or 14, there is no reason they can’t do their own laundry,” says Lynn, noting that any child who can operate a computer or video game can be taught to use a washing machine. “We’re not talking about wringer washers here.” Lynn suggests the groundwork can be laid early on — preschoolers can sort socks or fold underwear, for example. And it doesn’t hurt to add a natural consequence: Your teen may be more willing to pitch in when her favourite jeans have been lying in the hamper for two weeks.

2. Cook a meal

Do you remember hosting your first dinner party and suddenly appreciating how much preparation is involved? Most kids don’t have a clue how to put together a meal until they try it themselves. By the time Lynn’s son and daughter were in their early teens, they were each expected to cook dinner once a week. They didn’t have to shop, but they did have to think ahead and make a grocery list. Bonus: When they leave home, teens who know their way around a kitchen will be less likely to survive on fast food and other junk.

3. Earn their own money

Debra Schultz’s* 13-year-old twin boys are like night and day when it comes to money. Andrew helps with a friend’s landscaping business during the summer to earn extra money, and he’s diligently saving to buy a fish tank. His brother, Chris, is much less motivated. “Chris says he understands the benefits of saving money, and he’s tried,” says his mom. “But it doesn’t last long.” The Schultzes recently encouraged Chris to save for the new goalie pads he wanted, but eventually they paid for them. “We don’t want them to go without,” says Debra, echoing a feeling all parents can relate to.

Direnfeld argues that as soon as teens are able to work, it’s time to give them some financial responsibilities. “It’s important for parents to know when to pull back, or kids will not be motivated to find a job.” The benefits of part-time work are not just financial, he says: “Children learn what other people’s rules are, not just their parents’. They learn what it’s like to be in the real world.”

*Names changed by request.

4. Be in a healthy relationship

The patterns your teen forms in his early dating experiences will either help or haunt him as he gets older. Parents can’t control what happens in their kids’ relationships, but they can provide a model. “The first rule is: Look in the mirror,” Direnfeld says. “If you’re not in a respectful relationship, you lose your moral authority. Teenagers typically turn down the volume and look at the picture.”

While it’s good to be understanding and supportive when our teens’ relationships go awry, remember that gaining life experience sometimes hurts. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing that your child has a failed relationship and a broken heart,” says Direnfeld. It might help your teen choose a partner more wisely next time.

5. Avoid pregnancy and STIs

During a recent exchange on Todaysparent.com, several forum visitors thought it might be good to stock condoms in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” jar. Others thought that this sends the wrong message, arguing that sexually active teens should be responsible for going to the drugstore on their own. Of course, most parents are generally horrified by the very idea of their teens having sex.

“Normal adolescence includes sexual behaviour and experimentation,” says Direnfeld. “We have to understand that as a given, whatever our moral position.” But, he adds, “the research tells us that parents who share their morals and values are influential in their children’s sexual decisions.” Whether you’re preaching abstinence or you’re more tolerant of sexual activity, make sure your teens understand the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and know how to protect themselves.

Lynn offers another suggestion: “Ask your family doctor to talk to your teen about sexual activity, and make it clear that whatever is said between doctor and child is confidential. Some doctors aren’t sure whether it’s OK to talk to kids about these issues.”

6. Understand they’re not the centre of the universe

The teenage mindset is summed up wonderfully in the title of a book by clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf, who has worked with teens for more than 30 years: Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? Teens need to appreciate that the world doesn’t stop because they need to be somewhere. “You may want to put this in terms of a deal,” suggests Ron Clavier, a Toronto psychologist and author of Teen Brain, Teen Mind. “I would say, ‘You’ve asked me to drive you to your hockey game, and that means I have to give up a half-hour of my life. I was going to do the laundry this afternoon, so if you want to do the laundry, that gives me back my half-hour.’” Clavier says this type of exchange helps teens understand they have a responsibility to others.

7. Mind their manners

While etiquette standards constantly change, basic politeness and courtesy are never old-fashioned. Teach your teen to take off his baseball cap in a restaurant. Get him to phone his grandparents to thank them for the birthday gift. Make sure he understands that the language he uses around his friends may not be appropriate at work. “There are so many stories about young people going into job interviews and not having a clue how to behave,” says Lynn. “We can’t blame them. Why don’t they know what’s appropriate to wear at an office? Or that it’s important to listen and be polite? We spend so much energy making sure they’re involved in all these activities, yet sometimes we’re not teaching them basic social skills.”

8. Be street-smart

Your teens are going to encounter all kinds of people — at their job, at the mall, on the street — and blanket rules like “don’t talk to strangers” no longer apply. “Most teenagers believe they’re more knowledgeable than they really are, so it’s difficult to protect them from all the dangers that may befall them in the community,” says Direnfeld. “It’s something most people pick up from experience.” This is why Lynn suggests we help kids hone their street smarts long before they’re teenagers. “It starts with teaching them how to walk to school, how to go to the local store, how to take the bus downtown. If you’re walking into a parking garage with your daughter you can say, ‘You know, it’s a good idea to take a look around and see who else might be here, and if something doesn’t feel right, trust yourself and get out, or call for help.’”

9. See the world in perspective

To a teenager, not being invited to a party isn’t just a bummer, it’s a catastrophe. “One of the ways you can help your teen deal with this on a practical level is to make sure she has more than one peer group,” Clavier says. “This might include neighbourhood kids or cousins and relatives. That way if one group is doing something and she is not invited, she has someone else to call.”

Parents can also help teens understand that flunking a quiz or missing a penalty kick will not have lifelong consequences. But remember: Putting things in perspective doesn’t mean trivializing her emotions. It doesn’t help to tell your miserable daughter she’s making a big deal out of nothing. Instead, show her you know how she feels by sharing a story about a time you recovered from a similar setback.

10. Ask for help when they really need it

If you have a stubborn teen who thinks he always knows best, he may have no desire to come to you for advice. In some ways, that’s good. You’re trying to teach independence, after all. But teens can and do get into situations they can’t handle on their own: unwelcome sexual attention, an unwanted pregnancy, an abusive relationship, pressure to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Maintaining open and honest lines of communication means listening without being judgmental. No matter how independent your teen, he needs to know that when he’s genuinely in trouble, you will be there for him.

What a teen wants, what a teen needs

Ashley Marie Comeau is a recent graduate of Humber College’s comedy writing and performance program in Toronto. She is also a recent teenager. Here are her top 10 tips on parenting teens:

10 Laugh about mistakes. Sure, cleaning up a smashed bottle of soy sauce is annoying and, yes, it does stain white carpets, but there is something funny about smelling like chow mein all day, isn’t there?

9 Do not use your child as a mannequin. Once they hit the teenage years, kids need to express their own fashionista identities. Trying out hairstyles on your child to see if they will look good on you could result in years of therapy. (Thanks for the Richard Simmons perm, Mom!)

8 Let your child know you’re human too. Kids often forget that parents and teachers (and other people they won’t admit looking up to until they’re in their 20s) have needs and desires, and that, wait for it…they even cry!

7 Naked baby photos and “I love Brad Pitt” T-shirts on pets are not cool for potential boyfriends or girlfriends to see. Although my dog is quite the heartbreaker, I’m not sure my boyfriend when I was 14 could handle her leather jacket and matching booties.

6 Dream. Let your kids have dreams and share yours with them too. They don’t all come true, but how will we ever know if we don’t dare to have them?

5 Try. Teach your teen that failing is part of the process. It’s through trial and error that we discover our breaking points and passions.

4 Tell tales. Even if it’s the same old story of how Uncle Herman mistook the cement glue for his denture cream, family yarns are priceless. Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate them until we don’t hear them anymore.

3 Give time. It may sound cheesy, but the only way you and your teenager will get to know one another is by spending quality time together. My mother and I used to prance around the house in her horrible ’80s bridesmaid dresses. Playing together will show your teen he’s important to you and you’re willing to have fun.

2 Don’t be afraid to say no. Don’t say it all the time — no one likes a Debbie Downer. But saying no is healthy and your adolescent will thank you years (OK, maybe decades) later.

1 Tell them you love them every day. Even when they think it’s not “cool” (they’ll grow out of that). Don’t assume your actions will tell them; use your words, just to be sure, just in case they forget and take you for granted.

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