Letting out the rope… without cutting the cord

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 One recent evening, the call for dinner came, and a minute later two hungry adolescents sat down. One looked at what was on offer – a lovely lentil and sausage stew and green salad – and immediately turned up her nose. Our family rule since the kids were little has been “one taste of everything.” But tonight, an emphatic teenager declared, “That’s it. I’m not eating the lentils. I don’t like lentils; I’ve never liked them. And yes, I’ve tasted them ten different times. I. Am. Not. Eating. Them.” She decidedly picked out some sausage and helped herself to salad. 

In that instant of seat-of-your-pants parenting that we all have to perfect over the years, I realised that maybe she really didn’t like lentils. And that she had tasted them more than ten times. “Fine,” I said. “You’re right. You are both old enough to have developed tastes and preferences. So, here’s the deal. You each can designate one food that you never have to taste again, unless you want to. I won’t make a separate dinner for you, and I won’t stop cooking it because you don’t like it, so go make yourself a sandwich or eat other leftovers after you clear the dishes. Decide on your food and let me know. This is a one-time offer.” Two incredulous kids quickly began discussing the merits of mushrooms over courgettes, lentils over salmon. Mealtimes haven’t been our family battleground, and my kids aren’t really too picky – it’s just that no one had ever refused. A little choice and freedom went a long way that evening.

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Pick your battles

Every family is different, but typically, as children approach the end of primary school and head towards adolescence, the roles begin to change. Mum and Dad are still the bosses, of course, but your pre-teen also needs opportunities to start finding his/her own voice and making his/her own decisions. There’s plenty of research to support that children who are sheltered and never given the opportunity to try, fail, and try again encounter difficulties making decisions as they become young adults.

So, what’s negotiable? Let’s all agree that when it comes to safety and health, there’s no discussion. Mum and Dad make the rules. But what about schoolwork, for example? Do you keep on top of the kids, monitoring their every assignment? Or, do you allow them to manage their time, and if they miss an assignment, take the bad grade? 

Most schools reinforce the concept of time management as children reach a stage where they hae multiple teachers and are changing classes. Experts (and seasoned parents) would agree that this can be a challenging skill to master. Arguing with your pre-teen about homework can be exhausting, and it’s tempting to just drop it and see what happens. 

After decades of research and countless articles about the importance of building children’s self-esteem and positive reinforcement, in the past few years there has been a swing in the other direction, with the idea that children need to suffer in order to prepare them for the future harsh realities of life. But in The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom, education expert Alfie Kohn notes, “…to teach children how to handle a fire emergency, we talk to them about the dangers of smoke inhalation and advise them where to go when the alarm sounds. We don’t actually set them on fire.” What is important here is to focus on helping them to understand that the choices they make (not doing homework, in this example) have consequences (a poor mark). 

An unscientifically selected global group of ten- to 13-year-olds was recently asked, “How involved are your parents with your homework/assignments?” Nearly 70 per cent responded with, “They know if there’s a big project, but don’t follow the little things”. In a follow-up question, all the kids preferred that their parents stay informed but on the sidelines, with two wishing their parents would just “let them get on with it.” However, when asked, “If someone your age was regularly not getting their schoolwork done, do you think their parents should step in, or let him/her get a bad grade?” Seventy per cent thought that was when parents should take some action. (And, yes, I was the one asking the questions, to a group of my kids’ friends.)

Alfie Kohn says, “…how hurtful does an experience have to be before an adult is allowed to step in to help? Not so long ago, humiliation – even physical abuse – at the hands of bullies was regarded as a rite of passage that kids were expected to deal with by themselves – without assistance from ‘overprotective’ teachers and parents. The talk about toughening them up and forcing them to learn how to handle problems on their own isn’t so different from the BGUTI (better get used to it) rhetoric that’s still used today to justify painful experiences.” It’s no surprise that while our boundary-pushing youngsters want some more freedom, they need, and want, to be reassured that there’s still that safety net to catch them if they falter.

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How long’s the lead?

Heading out independently is another area of disagreement among parents and kids. Hong Kong offers a safe environment for young people, and parents can sometimes be lulled into a false sense of security. Nevertheless, parents and kids need to be in agreement regarding expectations. At our home, we’ve always had four basic rules once our kids were old enough to travel on their own. Without fail, Mum and Dad always need to know 
1) where you are; 2) who you are with; 3) what you are doing; and 4) when we’ve agreed you’ll be home. No discussion. If we find out that you weren’t truthful, or if at any time we don’t know those things, we would have to review whether you were ready to be out on your own. Be prepared for that rope to be pulled back in again for a while. 

Where do you start? First of all, remember that you know your children best. Just because their friends are heading out in taxis to meet at the mall, and just because your pre-teen is begging you to let her go too, it doesn’t mean your child is ready. Have an open, honest conversation with your partner about your concerns so everyone is on the same page. Have the same open, honest conversation with your child about their wishes and where you’re willing to start. Go slowly, and be sure to run through scenarios so kids know what to expect – what to do if the taxi breaks down, who to call next if they need you and you can’t be reached. And be sure they know your address and phone number (and preferably be able to share that in Cantonese!). 

Keeping in touch as your pre-teen is out and about is where technology can really shine. In addition to keeping you informed about their plans, you can often get a 12-year-old to share details about a touchy subject through a text rather than an uncomfortable face-to-face conversation. Being flexible about how you communicate and open to their preferences sets the stage for keeping the channels of communication open as they enter their teen years. Snapchat? Instagram? WhatsApp? Viber? If you’re comfortable with your tween using the technology, download it yourself and add it to your parenting toolbox.

Your pre-teen is starting a new journey – one that you may also remember. Yes, they’re growing up, and being the parent of a tween is as exciting and terrifying as it is being a tween. Pace yourself, parents, and don’t let out all the rope at once. But, as one of the tweens in the survey noted: “Be understanding and step in if necessary, but let them make their own memories.” Those memories will last a long time. 

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