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Something Bad Might Happen: 5 Things Parents Tell Themselves When Making Decisions About Firsts

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When my own children hit their tween years, I erred on the side of caution. I said “no” a lot. No to hanging around the wrong crowd. No to underage drinking. No to the wild parties.

In my role at work I was daily dealing with teenagers who were sexting, viewing pornography, lying to their parents, getting expelled or on the edge of addiction or crime. I was surrounded by research that suggested ‘most children’ were having sex and drinking copious amount of alcohol. These were all risks that I was sure my children didn’t need to take to have a full experience of life.

I think I got away with saying so many “no’s” because I also said “yes”.

Yes to a huge amount of family time. Yes to endless love. Yes to good role models. Yes to hobbies and interests that would help them live healthy and fulfilled lives (…they cost me an absolute fortune!) And yes to driving them to every flipping sports game possible!  

However, there are a lot of decisions that we make as parents which aren’t simple yes or no decisions. They aren’t clearly dangerous, or wrong…. just new. They are “first” for both our children, and us as parents.  They will change the playing field forever, and that is why we are understandably cautious.  

You might be in the middle of making a decision about a first.

The first sleep-over at someone’s house you don’t know very well. The first invitation to a party which doesn’t come through parents, and has more than 10 people gathered at it. The first real ‘interest’ in a girl or boy. The first social media account.  The first time they catch public transport without you. The first movie or shopping centre trip without you.  

If you are the type of parent who feels a deep responsibility for their tween or teen I am on your side. I was just like you.  Strict, by my children’s estimation. Cautious, by my own estimation.  I was deeply committed to being thoughtful about my job. I wanted to do this parenting thing right.

My boys are 21 and 18-years-old now. I am not sure where the time went but they have grown into gorgeous young men!  In hindsight, I can see that some of the things I was deeply concerned about as a parent (even deeply afraid of) were not helpful to them or me.  They weren’t hinged on fact but rooted in fear. And worst still, they didn’t convey faith in my children who were both capable and flourishing.  

I regularly hear so many GOOD parents trying very hard to convince themselves that gloom, doom and crisis is just around the corner, when it’s actually so distant. It’s pretty easy to overlook how exceptional our children are, or think they are only that way because we are sheltering them from the rest of the world.

So, here are some one liners that I hear parents say when they are trying to talk themselves INTO sensing danger.  I want to be very clear – protecting your child from danger is your responsibility as a parent – but there is a difference between logically assessing danger and smelling the faint waft of threat. If you are saying any of these TOO OFTEN you might want to check in with yourself, and ensure you aren’t trying to unnecessarily find danger. You want to make sure you are growing with your child and assessing risk accurately.

1.     You are too young.  We will always see our kids as too young.  Once they hit 17 the tide begins to turn, and whether we like it or not they can completely steer their own future. How many years do you have to help them keep strong and capable in all environments? There aren’t many years left, and there are a lot of lessons to learn in that time. I’d rather my children learn those lessons by my side, rather than play catch-up later on.

2.     Something bad might happen.  The operative word is “might”.  Stop and be really honest with yourself.  What are the risks?  THE. REAL. RISKS. Not made up, worked up, hypothetical risks, like Uncle Bob might randomly show up and offer a drug to my daughter.  Be clear about the difference between fact and fear, truth and concern. You’ve got this parents!  If you can harness fear, you can parent with more confidence. With fear at the helm it is impossible to make confident parenting decisions. It paralyses us and “no” becomes our automatic default.

3.     It’s other people I don’t trust. I get that. I don’t either. However, when we are consistently confronting our children with a fear-based mindset that says people and places aren’t to be trusted, we negate the joy they want to experience. They are open, optimistic and seeing the world through innocent eyes. Try saying, “What is it that you want to enjoy?”, before you say, “Let’s talk about the risks.” In every new experience there will be risks to talk about. It’s too easy for them to become our sole focus.

4.     You aren’t ready.  There are many cases where this is true. You know your child and their maturity and background experience.  But, perhaps it is time to prepare them to handle untrustworthy people and environments?  I didn’t realise how capable my children were until I saw how they handle crises when I was not there.  From rescuing drowning or injured peers to calling ambulances during parties, I have been proud (and at times a little surprised) to see my teenagers step up into adult responsibility when necessary.

5.     I need to protect your innocence.  Sometimes we think that our children will only flourish if they are sheltered from the unsavoury parts of the world, and “bad” influences and experiences. But I have to remind myself that I want to raise strong kids who will fiercely protect themselves, their friends and their values.  The only way this strength develops is through life experiences which they then process to form their own values.  Eliminate all the negatives, and the growing up “process” doesn’t happen.

Parenting a tween or teen has a lot to do with navigating “firsts” well.  To do this well we have to harness the power of fear and its impact on parenting. This blog is about reminding us that letting go is often harder for us than them, and that the journey that can be made less difficult if we practise letting go in safe and small ways. That way, we can prove to ourselves, and they can prove to themselves, how awesome they really are.

RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book “Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-doubt of Growing Up”. 

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