Parents of tweens grow all too accustomed to closed doors, mood swings, eye rolls, and sighs. These incidents, which come and go with little rhyme or reason, are the tremors that signal the seismic ground shift underway as their children evolve into teens.
Never has the term “growing pains” been more spot-on or the division of labor more stark – they’re doing the growing and you’re feeling the pain!
One approach to maintaining parental sanity through these inevitable ups and downs associated with the teen years is to embrace and utilize a familiar saying: “It takes a village.”
As Hillary Clinton explained in her 1996 landmark book, "It Takes a Village": “I chose that old African proverb to title this book because it offers a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them.”
The idea is that, even in families fortunate enough to have two engaged parents, the job of raising a flourishing, resilient child in today’s world is simply too big. With extended family often stretched geographically, we need neighbors, medical professionals, pastors, teachers, and coaches to help usher our children through the early years, adolescence, and into adulthood.
By embracing the village theory we come to realize that not only is there no shame in engaging the help of others, exposing our kids to additional voices and viewpoints only makes them stronger and more well-rounded. Likewise, it creates an extended safety net as they venture further into the world on their own.
The village theory becomes even more compelling as children get older. As parenting experts note, the push and pull experienced by families during the tween/teen phase relates to the realization (sometimes only subconscious) by both parent and child that they are preparing incrementally for the developmental milestone of the child eventually leaving home.
Rather than knee-jerk reacting to these acts of independence, parents would be well-served to lean in. As former Stanford Dean Julie Lythcott-Haims challenges in her brilliant book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success": “Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?”
The clash of wills can manifest in different ways. Tweens take baby steps toward departure from the nest, testing the waters in a host of small (often annoying) ways. Teens take longer strides, asserting greater independence over their social and academic affairs, and often ruffling parental feathers with an abrasive, know-it-all attitude.
This tension reaches a crescendo and culminates in “soiling the nest” – the dreaded summer before they leave for college and make life so miserable for everyone that parents are practically packing their bags for them.
As psychologist Lisa Damour aptly writes for the New York Times, “There’s a hidden function to this friction: It’s easier to part from people whose company we can hardly stand.”
Recognizing this familial rite of passage for what it is helps us keep eyes on the prize: launching a young adult capable of navigating life without a parental hand on the wheel.
The upshot of this escalating dose of friction is a rarely-discussed corollary to the village theory. When the tween/teen years arrive, you'll be horrified to realize that your child has relegated you to the role of “village idiot.” Per Oxford Dictionaries, that would make you a “very low intelligence resident” of a village. Sigh.
Suggestions from you will be met with skepticism bordering on disdain, and often summarily dismissed. The parent stunned to find herself in this position would be wise to heed the guidance to swimmers caught in a riptide – swim with the current, not against it.
Don’t exhaust yourself flailing around about how “mother/father knows best,” or getting your back up because your child seeks advice from someone else. The reality is, when your advice comes from the mouth of another adult (who is almost certainly cooler than you), it often sounds genius to your child. The value of having a well-populated village skyrockets.
Whatever stage you find yourself in, it's never too early or too late to brainstorm about the key areas of your child’s life that would benefit from a reliable adult messenger, and who fits the bill. Keep in mind that villagers often wear multiple hats and serve roles not confined to their job titles.
As for emotional support, villagers can be found in all kinds of places. These are your child’s “go to” people, the ones who make them feel safe, valued, and understood. Aunts, uncles, teachers, pastors, neighbors, and coaches can be indispensable sounding boards for your child as they seek to find their way in the world outside the parental orbit.
Encourage your tween/teen to form an independent relationship with her pediatrician and to speak freely without you in the exam room. When she turns 18 and medical privacy laws preclude you from accessing her medical records, you’ll be glad she knows how to cultivate a doctor/patient relationship.
Likewise, academic guidance becomes crucial as your child embarks upon decisions that affect high school and college. Fostering strong teacher and guidance counselor supports can be particularly beneficial as your child transitions to owning his own academic journey.
Jessica Lahey notes in her bestselling book, "The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed": “In order to help children make the most of their education, parents must begin to relinquish control and focus on three goals: embracing opportunities to fail, finding ways to learn from that failure, and creating positive home-school relationships.”
The bottom line is that fostering strong relationships between your child and adult villagers across these various spectrums both enhances their quest to navigate life independent of you and your peace of mind that they're supported by reliable adult counsel as they do so.
Don’t forget to take care of the villagers who generously give their own time and energy to your kids. Never underestimate the value of a heartfelt thank you (handwritten note, an email, a text, or a phone call) acknowledging their time, caring, and special place in your child’s life. Make sure your kids know how pleased you are that they have trusted advisors in their lives.
Personally, I will forever be grateful to the card-carrying members of our village who have so generously played a supporting role in my children’s lives. Consider this my shout out to the guidance counselors who passed the baton over the years to curb my firstborn’s anxiety, the physical therapist who provides equal parts mental and physical therapy to my apprehensive athlete returning to play, the middle school theater teacher who turned my daughter on to her life’s passion, and the coach who knows what makes my varsity player tick because he’s been on board since Little League. Your impact will never be forgotten.