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Deadbeat Teenagers Make The Best Dads
Pre-parenting #3: the case for fallible parents
Pre-parenting (definition): the attempts by a childless male to add some intentionality to raising his future children. Usually based on his own experiences growing up. Most likely futile.
Kids will be kids. Each one is different and each one is special, I know, but there are stereotypes and old tropes for a reason: kids naturally go through phases as they figure out who they want to be.
There’s the fawning phase, where your parents are your heroes and you want to do everything you can to make them proud.
There’s the rebellious phase, where your Dad could be Ghandi and you’d still find a way to resent him for being too nice to everyone.
There’s the questioning phase, where you learn that your parents are humans with flaws and that they may believe things you don’t; this is the one where you think “I’ll do things differently.”
Then there’s most likely an acceptance phase to come full circle: appreciation for the things they’ve done and an understanding of where and why they fell short in your eyes.
Rebel With Rules
I’m interested in the rebellious phase. That’s where things can go sideways real quick as kids try new things, new personalities, and new friends as they find out who they really are. They are usually at an age in their teens where they feel virtually indestructible and untouchable. If they haven’t gotten in major trouble before, they’ve most likely done things and gotten away with them; they think this will last forever.
As a parent, attempting to shortcut the rebellious phase seems like a bad and impossible idea. Any parent reading this has certainly seen a few examples of “don’t do this” directly leading to “I’m going to do this now that you said that.” In fact, you probably want some level of rebelliousness and questioning so it’s not bottled up for a later date. What’s the saying? “All these well-behaved French kids keep growing up to be revolutionaries”?
If I can’t and don’t want to stop it, then I do want to put guardrails around the rebel phase. I don’t want my kids to die and I don’t want them to make decisions that will negatively impact them for the rest of their lives. They, of course, don’t think either could happen. Me just saying “don’t die and don’t make decisions that negatively impact your future” sounds good in principle but is too high-level and conceptual to prompt any real follow through.
The key here may be changing the traditional parent/child relationship. Instead of an adult that kids view as being from a different world, a different time, I can become someone who went through a lot of what they will go through, and now has the benefit of added wisdom. Said differently, the more shenanigans I did growing up, the better lens I have into what my kids will be tempted to try. The more I did myself, the more authority I can have imparting that wisdom to my kids.
Passing along that knowledge so that they don’t think they have to learn it firsthand seems to hinge on two basic things:
Picking the few, most important guardrails I want to build
Actually sharing my f*ck-ups to make sure those guardrails are solid
Where to Let Your Kids Mess Up
A laundry list of “do-nots” will dilute each specific one and won’t allow for the most important ones to shine through. That means understanding that kids are going to do dumb things and learn from them, just as I did. If I were to categorize my own rule-breaking experience it would look like this:
60% of the time I got away with it scot-free
35% of the time I had a close call or minor injury
5% of the time I really hurt myself
The close-call 35% is where you learn the most. The experience you earn imparts the lessons you remember. This is the 35% I so badly want to protect for my kids. All it takes is almost burning down a forest when a firework goes sideways to make sure you’re always more careful next time.
The 5% is different. The 5% is when the risk-tolerance of a teenager far exceeds their capacity to understand permanent consequences. This is where my real-world experience of close-calls and failures - those of mine and my friends’ - comes into play.
For what it’s worth, cars and drugs seem to make up the bulk of the 5% ; online idiocy is the new third leg I suppose. Whomever thinks that 16 is the right age to get a license is a complete looney toon. 3,000 pounds of metal going at 80mph is a rocket… and it’s being directed by a kid who believes not a thing can go wrong. Add in alcohol, and you’ve compounded the invincibility while subtracting physical ability.
Which Rules Matter?
What few lessons do I lean into? It goes back to my earlier parameters: don’t die and don’t do permanent damage. Both cover a lot.
Dying is: driving recklessly, driving while drunk, taking too many drugs, taking drugs laced with not the drug you wanted, jumping off things that are too high, and most physical dares that are accompanied by “c’mon, don’t be a pussy”.
Permanent damage is: getting caught cheating in school, fighting in school, getting arrested, starting an accidental family, sexual misconduct, scandalous photos on the internet, and anything you do at 15 that might still hold you back at 45.
Looking back on my childhood, I or the people I was around checked a heck a lot of those boxes. For example, growing up I heard phrases like “I’m the best drunk driver” said in absolute seriousness, so I know what it feels like to look at a completely hammered friend telling me he’s good to drive and feeling like I have to hop in.
Why On Earth Would They Listen?
Getting your kids to listen on these guidelines is where first-hand experience comes into play. First off, you won’t even know about all the situations your kids could get into if you haven’t seen them yourself. So experience allows for awareness. Second, if your kids think you’re freaking out over some old-white-man op-ed you read in the Wall Street Journal, you will have absolutely zero credibility.
“Hey, you’re going to want to get A’s, and there are going to be assignments or classes where it’s going to be so easy to cheat. You’ll definitely see your classmates doing it. Most of them are definitely going to get away with it, too. That guy that gets caught though gets ostracized from everyone else, and might even get kicked out of school. I saw it numerous times growing up; always screwed them on anywhere they wanted to work or go to school next. In the end your final grade will be a ton better if you did the work on the intermediate tests along the way.”
“Hey, if you’re starting to see harder drugs at parties, everyone is going to be loving them and odds are no one has overdosed. Problem is you can’t really trust a drug dealer, and the shit they put into that to make more money can kill you. We were all at a party growing up and one of my friend’s eyes rolled back as he was laying on the couch. Three hours later he was dead. Everyone else had almost taken what he was on. Why be that one kid everyone reads about in the newspaper?”
There is the very real chance they respond “Dad, that was just you - I know what I’m doing” or “Dad, you saw it go wrong so now you’re overreacting.” But the more you’ve felt that feeling they will feel, that decision point where they decide to take the left instead of right, the more likely the details in your stories will ring true when they face those situations. In addition to the stories above, maybe it’s also coming up with strategies to use to get out of the constant onslaught of peer pressure.
You’re An Adult, Not Jesus
So yes, this is a absolutely a case for sharing the key missteps you’ve made early on. It’s a case for not building yourself up as an infallible human in the eyes of your kids, but rather one that’s grown and one that was actually a kid just like them facing the same tough situations they are facing.
The key is to share the few that resonate most. The last thing you want to do is spur behavior “because my Dad used to do it.” Oversharing nostalgia from when you were their age is a recipe for tacit approval of them doing it too.
Instead I’ll think about what stories I have in my arsenal and consider the right ages to share them. I’m hopeful there is an opportunity to save my kids from their worst instincts at their worst moments without sacrificing the authority necessary to guide them or sacrificing the sacred ritual of making their own mistakes.
P.S. There’s another whole article to be written about how a better way to avoid tragedy is to give them something positive to work towards, not just how to get them to avoid the bad. Playing basketball instead of joining a gang, building robots instead of huffing glue, community service instead of sleeping with the entire lacrosse team, etc etc etc.