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The Curse of Low Expectations for Teens
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While I'm taking the summer a little more slowly, I've decided to rerun columns I wrote back a few years ago, before I was blogging. Here's one I was reminded of after all the kerfuffle about the prom. Hope you enjoy it!

When I was a teenager I had a curfew of 11:00. I don’t know why I complied, and I’m not quite sure what my mother would have done if I hadn’t (I don’t think she’s sure, either). Yet while I may have grumbled about it, I was always home by 11.

I think it all boiled down to this: I didn’t want to disappoint Mom. She had high expectations of me, though not the kind that drive you to despair. She knew what I was capable of becoming, and she wanted me to do my best. And, with a few exceptions, I tried.

All parents have expectations of their kids, but increasingly they are expectations of an entirely different sort. They go something like this: “Well, all kids will drink/use drugs/have sex. What are you going to do?” But there’s no reason to be so pessimistic. Here are the facts: most teens are still virgins. Most teens do not go to keg parties. Most teens do not use drugs. In fact, the rate of these behaviours is actually going down. Such behaviour is not inevitable, despite what the media make it seem.

And I find even many Christian parents giving in to this defeatism! One parent from our church recently questioned my 16-year-old daughter about her future plans. She told her about her plans to go to university in Ottawa, and eventually get an apartment with friends. "With your boyfriend?" the mom laughed. "Of course not!" Rebecca replied. Why would she even think Rebecca would live with someone? My daughter was flabbergasted, but that was how this woman assumed all teens would be.

I sometimes wonder if our defeatism encourages that behaviour. Perhaps the reason that many kids do engage in potentially dangerous behaviours is that we tell them that’s what we expect. We may yell at them when they do something stupid, but we don’t take steps to prevent it. All they’ve seen is our “what can you do?” attitude.

And many parents aren’t only sighing about their apparent hopelessness at controlling their kids; they’re actually encouraging their kids’ dangerous behaviours. They invite other teens over to their house and serve alcohol so that “at least I know where my kid is.” (Never mind what the other parents whose underage kids you are getting drunk think).

Then there are the parents who bring their young daughters to the doctor to get birth control. Their concern is not always that their daughter has begun to sleep around; often she hasn’t. But you never know what she’ll do, so let’s make sure she won’t get pregnant. Once you’ve taken that trip to the doctor, though, how can you turn around and tell your daughter “don’t have sex”, or at least “do so discriminantly”? You’ve already shown her that you expect her to sleep around. Once she’s in a relationship and confused about what she should do, she’ll remember that you expect her to say yes.

Having rules gives kids a safety net so that they have a way out. If they’re at a party that’s getting out of hand, they can always make the excuse “well, I have to leave or my mother’s going to ground me for life”. If, on the other hand, the kids are all at your house and you’ve opened up the liquor cabinet, it’s much harder for your teen to leave.

Maybe we need to try a different approach. I remember a comment my mother made in passing when I was 14. She had worked at a pregnancy home for young teens for a time, and she said the biggest heartbreak in her life would be if I ended up in that situation. She told me there was no reason why I should. That comment stayed with me. I was sure that if I did anything like that I would break her heart. And I didn’t want to do that.

It wasn’t only that my mother expected things of me. That was only one half of the equation. My mother also loved me. We can’t expect kids just to do what we want out of the goodness of their hearts, without ever deserving it. But if we’re steadfast in our love for them, and coherent in our expectations of them, they’ll understand.

We can’t eliminate the risk that they might choose poorly. Kids still have their own minds. Had I become pregnant, it would not have been my mother’s fault; it would have been mine. But just because we can’t completely prevent destructive behaviour doesn’t mean we should give up.

Most kids don’t want to disappoint their parents. But they can’t disappoint you if you’ve never expected anything in the first place. All of our kids have the potential for amazing futures ahead of them. Let’s make sure they believe that, too.

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4 Comments:

At 11:55 AM , Blogger Jennifer said…

When I was a kid I used my parents as an excuse to get out of iffy situations all the time. The conversation would usually go something like this:

"Oh, I can't do that! My parents would find out and I'd be in SO MUCH TROUBLE."

"They'll never find out. Who's going to tell them?"

"You don't know my parents! Believe me, they'll find out, and then I'll be grounded for life!"

Friend looks doubtful, but gives in. "Well, OK, we'll leave you here then."

My friends were all convinced my parents were complete ogres, but it helped me get out of situations that I was too afraid/uncertain to deal with on my own.

 

At 12:09 PM , OpenID lettersfromnebby said…

I don't have teens yet, but I think this is true even at younger ages. Expectations affect a lot. And I think we are way too accepting of behavior--temper tantrums, whining, lying--as "age appropriate" when we shoudl call it sinful and deal with it.

I wonder with the new HPV vaccine for girls if we are settling them up for failure too. My daughter is 9 now so please tell me what you do about this while I still have time to contemplate it!

 

At 12:10 PM , OpenID lettersfromnebby said…

I don't have teens yet, but I think this is true even at younger ages. Expectations affect a lot. And I think we are way too accepting of behavior--temper tantrums, whining, lying--as "age appropriate" when we shoudl call it sinful and deal with it.

I wonder with the new HPV vaccine for girls if we are settling them up for failure too. My daughter is 9 now so please tell me what you do about this while I still have time to contemplate it!

 

At 8:30 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

This is so true. I remember my mom teaching me about all the different forms of birth control in 6th grade using a college sexuality text book, so of course when I got a boyfriend I had sex. It's what I thought you are supposed to do.

 
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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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