Not long ago, 14-year-old Andrew walked into church with an attention-grabbing new look: bright green, spiked hair. Andrew's mom, Lisa, sat down beside him nonchalantly, despite the startled looks of those sitting near them. I couldn't help but admire Lisa, especially because I knew her to be a very conservative woman. After church, I complimented her unconcern. Lisa explained that even though she didn't like the green spikes, she decided Andrew's 'do was not immoral, illegal, or life-threatening, so it was his hair to style.
We are often embarrassed by our teen's "out-there" styles because we think they reflect our parenting. In reality, a fashion statement like Andrew's hair usually reflects little more than a young teen's need for independence or attention or both. It says he is growing up and has a mind of his own.
The trick comes in knowing when to let your young teen make these kinds of decisions and when to step in. Family counselor Barb Coloroso is a former nun who works with at-risk teens. She applauds Lisa's wisdom and explains that the middle school years are when kids must learn to make more important decisions. They need practice making choices and living with the results of their choices. Coloroso advises to let kids make "cheap" (less consequential) mistakes now to avoid "expensive" (hard consequences) mistakes later.
"If a teen has more choices now, he has less to rebel against," says Coloroso. "He can't rebel against his own decision. There's a time and a place for parents to say no. I work with runaways and pregnant teens who wished someone would have said no to them. Save those battles for the times when your child may be exposed to drugs or sex or just for their personal safety."
My hunch is that it won't be long before Andrew is tired of waking up 30 minutes early to style his hair. However, the satisfaction he feels for making his own bold statement will never fade. Nor will my amusement at sitting in church behind those wild green spikes.
Green hair isn't the only "out there" characteristic parents of teens have to deal with. In his book Cleared For Takeoff (Word), author Wayne Rice puts it succinctly when he says, "One thing I've learned after I became the parent of a teenager is that it's possible to be ticked off 24 hours a day." Rice suggests these guidelines for handling conflicts with your teen:
Lighten up: Rice believes a humorous home is a healthy home and laughing and acting silly together can create significant bonds. "The challenge for adults who want to treat kids respectfully is to learn to laugh with them," says Rice. If you are still stewing over a messy room or an unkept promise, conjure up a smile and a hug. Kids need to know that you love them even when there are problems.
Put a sock in it: Trying to reason with a teen about a chore or something they don't want to do is wasted energy. Instead, state your request, let your teen protest, barter, moan, and refuse if she wants, acknowledge her feelings while standing firm on your request, then walk away. Your teen is left with a choice: either do the deed or suffer the consequences.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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