When people ask what grade I teach, I like to joke that I only teach children who are shorter than I am. Since I’m not very tall, this unwritten rule has kept me in the elementary grades for my 24 years of teaching. The challenge that I should have seen coming is that my own children are built like their dad, who is well over 6 feet tall.
Now I find myself in the unfamiliar world of adolescents. Luckily, my husband teaches high school, so he’s well-versed in the ways of these mysterious man-children, but I’ve found that parenting teenagers is not so different from parenting young children. While teens might not appreciate the comparison, the fact is that both early childhood and adolescence are times of amazing learning and growth, and of predictable and unexpected leaps forward socially, emotionally and academically.
Because of this unexpected connection, I’ve been able to mine some wisdom from being a parent and teacher of younger children and apply it to raising my teenage boys. And while our Jewish tradition teaches us that we must be active and proactive as parents, it also teaches us other, perhaps more subtle, lessons. Here are three take-aways that are working for my family right now (results, of course, may vary):
1. Be a houseplant: I remember when my boys were young, I felt like I couldn’t take my eyes off them for a moment. As they got older and I no longer had to worry about them darting into the street or exacting vigilante justice on each other, I could let them go farther afield.
Now, as they make their own social plans and start to drive, it seems they need my presence even less. But it’s critically important for parents to be present in the lives of their teenagers. I don’t just mean going to games or taking photos for dances, I mean putting down my phone and being around, quiet and unobtrusive, but decidedly present. Rabbi Alan Lew, known as the ‘Zen Rabbi,’ taught about the importance of being present and fully in the moment, and I think this applies to parenting adolescents, too. One mom I know likened this to being a houseplant. Not saying much or making a big deal. Just being present.
2. Leave the rocks in the road: No matter how much I want to smooth the path of life for my children, doing so would deny them the opportunity to practice and learn how to manage the bumps.
Even though it’s hard to see them struggle at things I could deal with — having a difficult conversation with a teacher or friend or getting through particularly challenging homework — so much of the learning they do as adolescents is the result of trying, falling down and trying again, or trying, succeeding and realizing, “Whoa, I did that.”
The best thing I can do for them is be present, hold space and ask if they want to process together. The next best thing I can do is continue to offer stability in the form of our family’s traditions, like welcoming Shabbat together. Even if the rest of the world is full of unpredictable people and too much homework, my kids know we will have dinner together every night, and on Friday, there will always be singing and blessings and challah.
3. Open the gate: A parenting book I read when my boys were young talked about offering kids limited choices. For example, if they don’t want to clean up their room, offer them the choice between cleaning their room before or after brushing teeth.
While the children I’ve taught and raised see straight through this strategy, they do find power in choice. This is especially terrifying to me as a parent when I think about the overwhelming number of choices my boys will make every day as teenagers: Should I talk on the phone while driving? Should I be friends with that person? Should I lean in or out when people are talking about G-d or politics?
Honestly, I just want to lock the gate and keep them safe. What if they make the wrong choice? What if they get in trouble or get hurt?
When I take some deep breaths and talk myself off the parenting ledge, I recognize that adolescence is the best time to open the gate and let them practice making good decisions.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, a well-known Conservative rabbi and author, says that there’s no morality without choice, that if our choices are pre-determined, then they aren’t really choices at all. Goodness only exists if we can choose it over its alternative. This kind of experimentation, self-reflection and growth is an intentional part of how I teach my class. Elementary school, especially as children move toward adolescence in middle school, is the ideal time for children to experiment with their choices. We give them all the choice we can manage within their day: choices about how to approach their work, how to show what they’ve learned, and information to help them make good choices as friends and community members.
It’s tempting to want to keep kids on a short leash at home and at school, to keep them tightly scheduled and highly supervised, and to save them from their own hormonal unpredictability and poor decision-making skills. That’s understandable. It’s fair to want to remind them all about our hard-won “wisdom” and our values, and so we dare to annoy them with our care and vigilance. But, if we lean too far in this direction, we risk taking away some of the most important building blocks of their development into young adults.
Perhaps what has been most interesting and personally revelatory is that both my students’ and my teenage children’s choices and changes have necessitated my own. While I won’t get any taller, I will undoubtedly keep refining my perspective on what constitutes good parenting and teaching.
Cari Newman is a third-generation Atlantan. She teaches at High Meadows School in Roswell. Her two sons are in seventh grade at High Meadows and ninth grade at The Weber School. They are members of Congregations Shearith Israel and B’nai Torah.
Parenting expert Wendy Mogel speaks at the school 6:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 14. Learn more and register at http://bit.ly/2Z6qouH.