Yesterday I had a meeting with a New York Independent School Upper School Head. In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, she described the tension, inherent in the job of an Upper School administrator, between the freedom required by emerging young adults and the need to contain adolescents. She summed this up with a phrase that made me smile, remembering six-year-old Lily, standing with her hands on her hips in her yellow rain boots furiously shouting, “You are not the boss of me.”
Well, actually I am. And the administrator pointed out, she is the boss of them at Upper School.
In my practice, I see a lot of parents who have trouble with this. When I was growing up, there was no question about the fact that parents were in charge. But these days, I see a dismaying number of adolescents who are in charge, because their parents don't want them to be mad at them. I have to work very hard to convince parents that it’s okay for their teenagers to be angry with them. In fact, adolescents actually need to be mad at their parents occasionally. It’s an essential part of the normal separation process that is the key developmental task of adolescence.
Still not convinced? Here is some research to illustrate the point. One of the best known studies about parenting was developed by Diana Baumrind, who eventually distinguished four distinct styles of parenting: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. She determined that best outcomes for children were associated with authoritative parenting, which is characterized by a high degree of parental responsiveness and a high degree of parental control. Authoritarian parents err on the side of too much control and too little responsiveness, and permissive parents are high in responsiveness and low in control. Uninvolved parents are low in both, and not surprisingly, this style of parenting is associated with the worst outcomes for children.
Last weekend I went to a family therapy training retreat, and the keynote speaker was Michael Davidovits, who teaches and supervises clinicians at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. (All Freedom Institute family therapists were trained at Ackerman). He described a healthy family system as a hierarchy (note that it is a hierarchy), in which parents have a high degree of both nurture and authority. This creates healthy boundaries in the family, which are essential to insuring that the system can function.
Finally, Suniya Luther, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University has been conducting research about risk and resiliency in affluent children for over a decade. To my mind, one of the most interesting findings in her research is something she calls “parental monitoring.” When she spoke with affluent adolescents, one of the things they said prevented them from engaging in risk-taking behavior (in this study, substance use), was the knowledge that their parents were monitoring where they were, even when they were not being truthful. In other words, it was their parent’s long-distance control and involvement that kept these adolescents safe.
Now I tell parents to insist upon knowing where their adolescents are, even if you suspect that they aren’t telling you the truth. If they tell you they are at Janie’s when they are in Chinatown, on some level, it doesn’t matter. Don’t give up. Monitor their activities, and demand that they check in with you regularly.
When parents establish and maintain a high degree of authority early in their relationship with their children, it is much easier to gradually give them more and more freedom as they mature. And as the Upper School Head and I discussed, when you do need to say “no” to Spring Break in the Bahamas, everybody’s used to it. (She and I have the same view on this whole phenomenon. In fact, for those of you who need reassurance in your resistance, based on the response to my Spring Break blog pretty much nobody thinks it’s a good idea, other than your eighteen-year old).
So go ahead. Seize the day. You are the boss of them.