Part I discussed how to decide which battles to pick and how to win without your or your child incurring collateral damage.
Part III explored how to decide how much freedom to give your child, how flexible to be with rules, and musings about what your child might do extracurricularly.
Here, we turn to tougher terrain.
Encouraging good friends
Deflating to we parents who think our efforts are dispositive, the Pulitzer Prize-finalist book, The Nurture Assumption, argues that peers have greater influence on how kids turn out than we do.
Whether or not that’s true, peers sure are influential. So the obvious behooves all parents: encourage good friendships. That’s easy if your child is naturally attracted to bright, well-adjusted kids who take only reasonable risks. But what if your kid is attracted to multi-pierced, tattoo-covered Goths who delight in shocking adults with their ever more outrageous and risky behavior, for example, serious drug abuse and driving under the influence?
Here, I advocate being firm. I’d tell my child something like:
I’ve seen you make some good choices but nothing is more important to shaping how you turn out than who your friends are. And to be honest, I’m worried that your friends—whether you realize it or not—are hurting how you’re turning out. They focus so much on shocking people and--perhaps I'm wrong--engaging in some very risky behaviors. I’m not asking you to turn yourself into a person you’re not or to like people you hate, but is it just possible that there’s a kid or two you might like whom you think would be better for you? Would you like to invite that child to join us at (insert the child’s favorite family activity.)
If my child doesn’t come up with a possibly acceptable kid, I’d do a little reconnoitering: I might ask my child’s teacher or think of my friends’ and relatives’ kids and set up a play date, for example, taking one or more of them with my family to an amusement park.
What about sex? Of course, parents legitimately can hold different views on when it’s appropriate to do what. All I want to advocate is to, early on, have one or more open conversations about sex. The following is the sort of thing I’d say to my child, male or female:
My sense is that most teens strike the right balance between prudishness and promiscuity by saving intimacy beyond perhaps kissing to someone really special and not falling for such lines as “Baby, if you loved me, you would." Honestly, how do you feel about that?”
I’d end such a conversation with something like:
Whatever you end up deciding to do or not do, I want you to know that you can always come to me about it. I may not be able to agree with your choice but I’ll try to be a good listener and maybe discussing it with me will help.”
What about drugs? I’m a moderate about most things but not about drugs, including alcohol and especially about tobacco and pot. The devastating effects of cigarette smoking are long-known but the evidence is mounting that even casual marijuana use causes serious brain changes, affecting one’s mental health and motivation. I review the literature here.
I’d have a conversation such as the following with my child:
As you know, I’m not a rule-follower by nature. I defy convention when I believe it’s wise. But here, I’m going to sound like a fuddy duddy. I would be very worried if you decided to do drugs. No, the world won’t end if you occasionally sneak a beer but I’ve become aware, for example, that even casual marijuana use permanently changes your brain’s structure, affecting your emotions and your motivation.
I’d ask my child why she wanted to, for example, smoke pot. Here are some possibilities and how I’d respond:
“My friends are all doing it.” I’d bet not all your friends are. And if they are, and if they disliked you because you said, “I’ll pass,” are they really the kind of people you want as your friends?
“It’s cool.” Is a bad memory cool? Is losing your motivation cool? It can only be cool to someone with values I don’t think you’d respect.
“I just want to experiment. I’m young.” Trying it once or twice won’t kill you. But young people forever have said, “I won’t get addicted.” And millions do. I know that young people think they’re impervious and that they can stop, but I beg you to trust me on this one.”
Dear reader, this ends my four-part series on parenting. But I invite you to, in the “join the discussion” section below, post any questions you’d like me to address.
Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's bio is on Wikipedia.