Monday, July 24, 2006

Dismaying Story #12: Big Bad Dad

Dear Andrew,

My teenage daughter is getting to the age where the boys will soon come calling. Though I would never actually embarrass her like this, I like to tell people I have my speech all ready for when a young lad arrives at our door to take her on a date. It goes something like this:

"I realize young men today have plenty of social issues to deal with. Well I just want you to know that as of this moment ... I am your social issue."

What do you think?

A Protective Dad

Dear Better-Get-Used-To-Waiting-Up-For-Her-To-Come-Home,

You have stated it in a half-joking manner but your letter alludes to a real issue parents face. It can sometimes be more nerve-wracking on the parents than on the children when young folks start to date.

To me this is part of a larger progression we all must go through. Think of the two ends of the maturity spectrum. At the beginning you have very young children who are incapable of making even the simplest of decisions for themselves. Parents direct their lives down to the most detailed level. Eventually these children emerge as independent adults. The parent's role in telling them what they can or should do has either been virtually eliminated or reduced to that of an adviser.

Young teenagers and their parents are partway along in this process. The parents may still have complete control over some aspects of the child's life (for example, where they reside, setting their curfew) and the teenager has likely taken over responsibility for others -- getting themselves dressed in the morning, choosing with whom they will socialize, and so on. This gradual shift of responsibility from parent to child is necessary as the teenager progresses toward adulthood. By the time they are old enough to live independently, they need to have acquired the life skills to manage their lives, to keep themselves healthy, safe and productive.

Mother Nature seems to know about this transition and to imbue teenagers with some of the traits necessary to make it happen. In particular, teenagers have a tendency to rebel against authority. No matter how polite, mature and good-natured your teenager, eventually they will resent it if you continually tell them what to do. A three-year-old will take it, a 15-year-old typically won't. Mother Nature, it seems, doesn't want the 15-year-old to be complacent on this issue. The desire to take responsibility for some of their own decisions is necessary if they are to learn how to function as adults. I understand this about my teenagers, so when I get resistance I try to remind myself this is natural and necessary.

That doesn't mean I have to like it, though.

As parents, we worry. We're used to protecting our children, making the decisions we feel are best for them, keeping them safe. We tend to believe that our own decision-making skills are superior to our children's. After all, we have the benefit of years of experience behind us. We want to help our children avoid the mistakes we made, perhaps to enjoy opportunities we missed. Often all of that ends up taking a back seat, however, to Mother Nature's larger agenda. "I just want to do it my way," your teenager will say.

And so we worry.

Transitions can be especially tough and dating is a perfect example. Until this point your daughter has likely done most of her socializing in groups, with other girls, with "just friends." Now all of a sudden she will be out on her own, needing to rely on her own abilities for a time to remain healthy and safe. Part of this depends on the young man. Chances are, though, you don't know him as well as your daughter. Will he treat her well? Will he exercise good judgment? Or will he pressure her to do things, to be in places and situations she might not ordinarily find herself? Parents may worry about sex (both consensual and otherwise), sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, peer pressure, drinking and drugs, automobile accidents, emotional trauma, and on and on.

And here's the tough part. We can talk about these things with our children. We can prepare, coach, threaten and cajole them, but when it comes right down to it, we can't be there when the decisions are finally made. Our children will be (shudder) on their own at crunch time.

This is a good thing. No, really, it is. It's all part of the progression toward adulthood. Also, it doesn't mean we have to relinquish all control. We can still talk to our children, monitor where they are going, try to establish safe and reasonable limits. Some situations are obvious red danger flags and should be actively discouraged. What would you think if your fourteen-year-old daughter said her date would be taking her to a cheap hotel room for the evening? Not happening, of course. What if it's a party where you know some of the people will be nineteen and twenty years old? It's a safe assumption that party will involve drinking and is probably not the best place for your fourteen year old, so you tell her to stay away. If you have developed a solid relationship with your child, she will listen.

Ah. There it is. The big "if." If you and your child have long ago established mutual trust and respect; if the two of you have repeatedly discussed issues like substance abuse, safe driving, peer pressure and sex for many years, long before dating becomes an issue; if you have served as a good role model, demonstrating responsible behavior in similar situations; if you have helped your teenager grow into a responsible and mature young adult; if all of these things are in place, then dating is probably a low risk activity.

"Wait a minute, Andrew," you say. "What's this 'probably' stuff?"

Sorry. That's the best you're going to get. Life, it seems, does not come with a money back guarantee.

So you start preparing for your conversation with that young man many years before he shows up at your door. Do that and you will be ready for him. More importantly, so will your daughter.

As for your speech, I trust you wrote the letter with your tongue firmly in your cheek. I'm sure you'll be a perfect gentleman when the first young man arrives to pick up your daughter. I also have a sneaking suspicion, though, that you'll be tempted to turn to your wife as soon as they're out the door and say with a grin, "I should have told him!"


Which life transition stresses you the most? What was your experience as your children began to take on new responsibilities? Be sure to email your own Dismaying Story or enter a comment using the link below.


  1. What a great blog!!!

    Note: When I camped in the backyard I had NO Hair dryer or curling iron, thank you very much.

    it SO counts.

  2. I plan to sit on the porch chewing tobacco & rocking in a nasty broken chair while chatting it up with my dead uncle Baxter when the suitors come calling. Hopefully after catching a glimpse at whats in store for them - they'll leave of their own accord.

    Heh,..actually my older girls are "dating" already - at 13 & 12 its scary as heck but what can you do? You gotta let'em grow up. The 10 yr old girl still finds boys "icky" & my boy is only 3 mths old so I'm still not too far gone to need advice. Keep it coming Doc.

  3. Dating at 13 and 12?!!?? Holy cow, talk about T-R-O-U-B-L-E!!! There's no WAY 12 and 13 year olds are even CLOSE to being mature enough to date. Not even in a group setting, not even with Mom and Dad in the front seat!

    What can you do? Help them focus on preparing for dating at a later time! Girls can be terribly boy crazy at that age, but they need your help understanding that their self worth doesn't come from which boy likes them enough to take them to the movie on Friday night. The process of dating only moves forward, never back. Once you've had your first kiss, you don't go back to just holding hands. Letting your children date at such a young age is a recipe for disaster.

    Ahem. (Sorry, I'll step off my soap box now. I was just completely astounded at that comment!)

    Good article though! I have two boys age 22 and 20, a girl who just turned 16, and three younger children. I have to say that the hardest part of parenting has without doubt been the teenage years, particularly the last part of the teenage years. They tend to want you to relinquish your authority on their schedule, which can make things tough that last year of high school. The nicest thing about them growing up, has been when they come back and say, "Thanks for not giving up, and caring enough to say no."

  4. Mom Of All Trades: Please, soapbox all you want! After all, that's what this sort of forum is for. 12 and 13 are younger than we wanted our kids dating but we have friends who think differently. As for the relinquishing authority bit, I agree that's one of parenting's last big struggles. Good for you for fighting the good fight.

  5. Thanks for your confidence in posting my comments (and for agreeing with me! LOL) I've never been able to figure out how to do trackbacks, so, here's a link to my post on this discussion:

    Mom of All Trades Blasts Off