We are entering that blessed season when, hopefully, our children's schedules thin and they are, thankfully, left with more time to contemplate and experiment with boundaries. As I ready myself for my first summer with a teenager in the house, I am especially aware of the bounty of opportunities that lie ahead: for her to pull one way and for me to gently remind that, yes, there are still boundaries even after 13. And with good reason.
The last several months have provided moments for me to get warmed-up in this arena.
As in much of life, sometimes in parenting lessons come to us from the backside. For one lesson I am particularly grateful, even as it caused disappointment at the moment of impact. Allow me to recount this simple story. Simple though it is in that it likely replays itself daily throughout our culture, the lessons taken home for me hold great significance.
Not too long ago, a group of my elementary school sons’ peers labeled me “over protective.” Their primary basis for such labels, they told my sons, is that I do not allow my boys to play the Xbox 360 Halo games. (With the exception of one Halo game which is rated for a Teen audience, the Halo games are rated for a Mature audience.)
Although I have followed the underpinnings which lead to this encounter, the exchange nevertheless surprised me. What surprised me the most about the accusation is the judgment that necessarily underlies the label “overprotective.” The Random House College Dictionary defines “over protect” this way: “to protect (esp. a child) to the point of inhibiting appropriate action or development.” And so the logical conclusion is that the activities to which the other children were referring are “appropriate.” The question raised for this parent, then, is: How do we define appropriate? What if everyone else is doing it? What if your intuition guides in a fundamentally different direction from the tides in which your children swim?
Recently, I had the great privilege of listening to a talk titled “But Everyone Else Is” by Michelle Kriebel. Michelle is a consultant with Jeff Wolfsberg & Associates, Inc., Drug Education and Wellness Specialists. She travels the country speaking with parents in the middle school years about the topic of peer pressure: How deeply it permeates our children’s lives and how to gain perspective on the intensity of emotions that it engenders.
Essentially, the basis for the intensity of peer pressure and the “But Everyone Else Is” perspective is two-fold:
- The frontal lobe (in particular the prefrontal cortex) of the brain (that part of the brain responsible for careful and reasoned decision-making) does not develop until a child reaches his early to mid-20s. The part of the brain which governs childhood as well as early and late adolescence is the amygdila. The amygdila is all about impulse. The amygdila is concerned with the now, with the immediacy of our emotions. For better or for worse, the amygdila also invites us to take risks.
- Vastly expanded technologies of communication, together with the manner in which content is disseminated over the Internet and into our homes have exponentially expanded our children’s notion of the “everyone.” These expanded technologies have also enabled widespread exposure to content which many believe is not developmentally appropriate for the audience which consumes it.
Given the fact that the amygdila does not enable a child to see the consequences of his action, the message needs to be this: although we need to love our children unconditionally, we do not need to trust their judgments and desires unconditionally. Parents need to remember that, although children and teenagers may act and look like they do not need our guidance or judgment, their brains depend on the perspective and reason of adult minds. And, that is the gift to which the title refers.
The freedom of summer sometimes lays a heavy hand on the true meaning of what it is to be a parent. This year, thankfully, I am reminded that to be a parent is a gift and with that gift comes opportunities to grow and open our minds as we parent.
Bibliography for thoughtful summer reading:
Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World, by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D.
Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. and Gabor Mate, M.D.
The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.
Raising Resilient Children, by Robert Brooks, Ph. D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.