A reader of this column writes, “I’m frustrated with my teenage son. Is it unfair for me to remind him that though I encourage independence, I’m still paying for everything, and that he’s obligated to at least listen to my opinions?”
The first thing you should NOT do is lecture him that, “I take care of you; I gave you food and shelter, so you owe me.” Children do not ask to be born. They came into the world because of the choice the parents made. Children are entitled to food, shelter and a nurturing environment that fosters intellectual growth. The rest is up to the child-turning-teenager.
Psychologist Robert Epstein told Psychology Today, “In every mammalian species, animals function as adults upon reaching puberty, often having offspring. We call our offspring ‘children’ well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now extends from childhood well into the 20s. The age at which Americans reach adulthood is increasing – 30 is the new 20 – and most Americans now believe a person isn’t an adult until age 26.”
The teenager is not automatically entitled to things that may be desired, but not needed to live. Even if the parent can afford it, he or she is not obliged to buy nice cars, designer jeans or the best iPhone. If the parent is able (and willing) to provide some of these things, that’s fine, but they should be presented as, “I love you and I can afford to buy this for you, so I’m doing it.”
Parents must distinguish between “want” and “need.” The teenager may claim to “need” the latest video game, and the parent must be prepared to inform him that he’s wrong. This won’t make the parent popular, but it will make for a more realistic and less “entitled” young adult. Unfortunately, many parents don’t take this approach, and this can lead to difficulty in the real world where the best of everything is not just handed out. In some cases, young adults can become confused. “What’s wrong with me? I used to live comfortably; now look at me. Did I do something wrong?” She may become resentful. “This isn’t right! I’ve always had what I wanted. Now people are attaching all these strings to it.” In their resentment, some young adults blame their parents. I’ve seen them actually move back home at age 25 or even 30, mortified and resentful. Now it’s the parents’ turn to wonder, “Where did we go wrong?”
I had a discussion recently with an older parent who commented, “Well, I wanted to give my kids everything I didn’t have.” Aha! There’s one of those sacred motives with which you dare not argue. But, alas, you have to argue with it if you want better results.
Two things are in conflict here: The first is wanting your kids to have things you didn’t have. The second is wanting them to be self-reliant. You can’t have it both ways. Raising self-reliant young adults means NOT giving them everything they want. If you can’t get past the need to shower them with everything they desire, they’re probably going to keep coming back for more. It’s just human nature. Most people adapt to what they’ve been trained to expect. If a young adult is used to having to work for his expensive clothes, he won’t be shocked when he has to continue doing it as an adult. When a teenager is handed everything, he doesn’t care why his parent is doing it. He simply comes to expect it. Is the purpose of raising a child to make a parent feel benevolent and generous? Or is it to launch the young person into a responsible and fulfilling life? Again, you can’t have both.
You are not your teenager’s friend. You’re his or her leader. Being a leader means being unpopular sometimes. The young people who function best as adults are the ones who were reasonably required to pay their own way. Just as parents have no right to expect their kids to owe them for being born, kids have no right to expect their parents to give them everything without any effort. If they do, the parents might quickly find out that 40 is the new 20.
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