TALKING TO TEENS
Copyright Dr. Carol Renaud Gaffney
Travelling affords great opportunities to meet people and to learn about their lives and their families. I recently shared a 2 hour flight with a woman, S.L., who is the mother 22 year old daughter. S.L. talked about her daughter with pride and unabashed affection.
S.L. and I initially spoke about the general state of the world and specifically the plight of the American family. Not surprisingly, the conversation soon landed on our own children.
S.L. spoke with pride of her daughter who has continually made difficult decisions to live within her values and does not drink, use drugs or have sex.
S.L.’s daughter is presently struggling through college, trying to earn what she can to support herself and her studies. She has become a serious student with serious ideas about her life. This young woman is thoughtful, has friends and a positive "can-do" attitude toward life.
I did seriously consider whether S.L. is deluded and living in a fantasy – a mother who had overlooked the obvious and living in the dream of the perfect child produced by the perfect parent. I have met plenty of parents who are proud of their rules and their children’s adherence only to find that their kids are giving lip service to the rules and are carousing wherever they can get away with it.
But as I gently probed and S.L. continued, I realized that she would know what goes on with her daughter because she has a real relationship with her. By real relationship I mean that, not only do they know each other, they actually talk and laugh and enjoy spending time together.
They accept each other without judgement even when they disagree. Her daughter sounded like someone who might have been called "nerd" – but then kids have predictable ways of labeling someone who makes choices that challenge their own.
I asked S.L. what she had done as a mother that might have contributed to her daughter’s choices.
S.L. has been a single mom for several years and father has not been actively present in his daughter’s life since she was 5. The following is the essence of what S.L. revealed to me.
1. Truth – I always spoke to her truthfully. I wasn’t worried that she couldn’t "take it." I respected her right to know. When a question was asked, I answered. And sometimes I didn’t wait to be asked. If I thought something was important, I brought it up. I talked to her about everything.
I have thought at times that one mistake I made was treating her too much like an equal, but I prefer having done that to having kept information from her.
I talked to her about sex and taught her that emotional maturity as well as being physically able are required for a sexual relationship. Emotional maturity comes with age and experience. I taught her that sex and possible pregnancy were just not something to play around with.
When you become pregnant as a teenager or any other unplanned time, there are just no good options – you have the baby to care for when you haven’t learned to care for yourself. Or you have an abortion, which has lasting emotional impact. Or you give the baby for adoption. We talked about this in conversation, not just one time and that was it.
We also had truthful talks about drugs and alcohol, how taking them is always a choice, how to be personal leader of yourself, not a follower of others.
We talked about personal problems and that you can’t run away from yourself, either with drugs or by moving out of town. When you move, you always bring yourself with you so you better figure out what you can do about yourself and not blame others for your problems.
Life was not rosy but we always knew we would make it.
2. Caretaking - I stayed at home with her until she was four years old. Actually now I wish it had been 5. I made a choice when I had a child that I would take care of her. I was married then and we didn’t have much money, but the priority was our daughter.
We decided we could get along with what we had but she was not able to get along without something that only parents could give. It was not her choice to be born; it was our choice about taking care of her.
Even after I started working, I worked hours that would give me time to go to school and activities. I wanted to be with her as much as possible.
3. Environment - I decided 20 years ago not to watch the news. The news ended for me when I saw an actual killing of a policeman on television. I decided I didn’t need this in our house.
Lots of people can’t understand how I can get along without watching the news but I read the paper and know what’s going on. I don’t need violence living in the house with me.
4. Love - And, of course, I tell her every day that I love her. I do it still. Sometimes I call her 3 or 4 times per day – just to talk with her and to stay in touch.
At this point I asked S.L. how she told her daughter that she loved her. S.L. looked at me as though I was crazy and said – what do you mean how do I tell her. I tell her: I love you.
I was properly chagrined when I realized that my question did not make sense to S.L. because it is so natural for her in her directness to say what she thinks. She uses words – real words - not gifts or innuendo or thinking that her daughter would know about her love by what she did.
What S.L. was saying is just too obvious. What we do is certainly important but more importantly, when it comes to letting someone know how we feel, is what we say. There is never a question about what we mean when we say, "I love you" to our children.
There are times in our children’s lives that can not be recaptured. We can’t go back and stay home with them, we can not attend missed soccer games or piano recitals or school plays. We can not go back and change past experience.
But it never too late to say "I love you" to those we love. And for those who did not hear it as a child and your parents are still living, it is never too late to start telling them about the love you have for them. It might be awkward at first, but keep at it because it will become easier with time.
There is joy in hearing those words "I love you" and there is little else that can connect two people like looking them in the eye and saying "I love you".
Thank you S.L. And just to get things started, I love you Chris, I love you Sean, I love you Kevin, I love you Mom and Dad.