Both childhood and adolescence are ages full of curiosity, but where the child tends to be focused on investigating and exploring the world, the adolescent tends to be eager to experiment with and experience the worldly. Learning becomes identified with growing older, and growing older entitles one to learn how to act more grown up.
For child and adolescent, curiosity is attracted to what is unknown and so is often filled with dangers of unexpected discovery. For example, the pre-school child painfully learns how a fascinating flickering flame is not only pretty but can burn, setting her clothes on fire, even leaving her with lasting scars. While the high school adolescent, wanting to sample the fraternity life of college friends, drinks so much alcohol so fast at a keg party that he bypasses drunk, passes out, and wakes up in the local emergency room, learning he is lucky to be alive.“Curiosity killed the cat,” indeed. Since satisfying youthful curiosity is not without risk, parenting requires vigilance: “What is my child and my teenager going to get into next?”
In general, I think most parents appreciate the positive power of adolescent curiosity to arouse interest, provoke questions, pursue answers, create learning, increase education, and advance growth. However, there are a couple of interesting dilemmas created in the parent/adolescent relationship by curiosity -- managing parental curiosity about the adolescent; and managing adolescent curiosity about the parents. The curiosity is mutual, but the problems are different.
PARENTAL CURIOSITY WITH THE ADOLESCENT
Parents usually feel more informed about their child than their adolescent because of keeping the child close to home, because of more involvement in the child’s life, and because of the child being open to confiding in parents. Childhood is the age of attachment parenting and holding on to build a confident dependence the girl or boy can basically trust. One key element of this attachment is close communication with parents about what is going on within the child and in the child’s outside life.
Adolescence begins with the separation from childhood (ages 9 – 13) as the young person starts pulling away and pushing against parents for more room to grow. Now begins the age of detachment parenting when more letting go of the adolescent is done to encourage the growth of a confident independence (while parents still remain connected by committed caring and communication.)
Staying adequately knowledgeable about their adolescent, who is now their prime informant about what has happened, is happening, and will be happening in the young person’s life, however, can be challenging. Their teenage son or daughter, for freedom’s sake, may want worldly interests and activities to be known less, while parents now have a need to know more.
So what is the best way for parents to satisfy their curiosity? Often, they do what comes naturally, what worked with the more accessible child. They simply ask questions and expect to get back what they want to know. However, what seems like a common sense approach to satisfying adult curiosity often proves unproductive with the adolescent. Rather than open up in response to parental inquiry, the teenager may become evasive, defensive, minimally expressive, or shut down by shutting up. She acts as though parents have committed some offense. What’s going on?
Well, for those adolescents who feel dedicated to preserving independence, parental questions can be objectionable on two grounds. First, they are emblematic of authority, asserting the adult right to know. And second, they are invasive of privacy, violating the teenage right to protect information she wants kept to herself. When these two “rights” collide and each party feels the other is “wrong,” conflict can result: “You have to tell me!” collides with “It’s none of your business!”
If parents find that direct questions are causing the adolescent to become less forthcoming and more silent and avoidant, they might want to switch to another strategy for satisfying their curiosity. Instead of questioning, they can make a request. What difference does this alternative make? The answer can be “quite a lot.”
While being asked can feel invasive and demanding to an adolescent, like being put on the spot; a request can come across as an act of courtesy that honors the young person’s willingness and right to respond or not. Requests respect the adolescent’s freedom of choice, and that expression of respect can often make a significant difference to a young person who is feeling protective, even defensive, of their growing independence. Request can often succeed in inviting out information that direct questions will not. What does a request sound like?
“I would love to hear more about last night, if you would care to tell.”
“It would ease my worries if you could let me know what is going on.”
“If you feel like talking, I feel like listening.”
“Any information would be appreciated.”
As an adolescent, sensitive to interrogation, which would you be more inclined to honor, the requests above or the questions below?
“What’s going on?”
“Why did you do that?”
“How could this have happened?”
“When am I going to get a full explanation?”
ADOLESCENT CURIOSITY WITH THE PARENTS
Next, there’s the thornier problem of adolescent curiosity with and about parents, and how parents manage their role as worldly and personal informants. There are some parents who say “You can ask me about anything,” and they mean it. At an age when many young people are reluctant to ask questions, because questions are statements of ignorance that can cause you to appear stupid, a parent can be a safe resource for information so long as the adult treats all questions seriously and does not criticize the young person for not knowing.
Parents can often be more reliable sources for trustworthy information than teenage peer experts who talk like they know, but really don’t, and often provide serious misinformation. For example: “If you sniff it but don’t swallow it, it can’t hurt you”; “Police can’t arrest you when you’re underage”; “If you get caught shoplifting, you just have to give stuff back”; “You can’t get in trouble for what you say on the Internet.”
But if an adolescent often can’t believe friends, who can they ask? That’s where parents as worldly informants come in. If they can’t answer an adolescent offhand, they commit to seek a reliable answer. “What we found out about the safety of body piercing is that if you are determined to do it, and at age 18 you will have that legal right, pierce soft tissue only and keep the wound clean, and don’t pierce cartilage because an infection there can be very hard to get rid of.”
Of course, there are parents who say they welcome all questions, but come asking time they are not up to their word. For example, caught off guard by the teenager’s question about drug use or contraception, the parent immediately has a suspicious response. “You’re asking what? Why do you want to know about that for?” To which the teenager angrily replies, “I thought you said I could ask you anything and you wouldn’t get upset!”
That’s one adolescent problem with asking parents for information. Questions show an interest in finding out about something. And sometimes parents don’t want the young person to want to know in the hopes that ignorance represents disinterest which will provide some measure of protection. “My teenager is too young to be curious about drugs or sex. She never asks those kinds of questions.”
Now for the hardest adolescent curiosity issue of all: how is the parent going to respond to adolescent questions about his personal history of experimentation and experience growing up? Here are a few sample questions to consider. “When did you first have sex?” “Did you ever lie to your parents?” “Did you ever cheat on a test at school?” “Did you ever experiment with alcohol or other drugs?” “Did you ever break the law, get away with it or get caught?”
To answer or not to answer, that is the question? Personal questions about high risk experience can be really tough for parents to answer, which is probably why most parents don’t. Such personal disclosure not only exposes past episodes the adult is not proud to have known, but they don’t want to encourage the adolescent by their “bad” example.
In general, while I sympathize with this sentiment, I don’t agree with it. I believe what parents primarily give their child and adolescent is an understanding of who and how they are. Young people who know their parents well are usually less afraid of being well known by their parents. “From what he’s told me, my dad wasn’t a perfect teenager, and neither am I, which he understands.”
In addition, when parents share ill-advised decisions from their past lives, particularly mistakes and misadventures from adolescence, they become very credible informants. And they can provide a very valuable service. The question for parents of a more adventurous adolescent to ask themselves is this. “Is there any tough life lesson I learned growing up from which my teenager could profit and not have to learn the hard way?”
If you choose to go this route of openness to self-disclosure, you might consider framing it like this. “We’d rather you learned from our hard experience than have to learn from your own. That’s why we are open to your curiosity about us, even how we were and what we did and what we learned at your age. But there are a couple of conditions. Condition number one is that what we share with you stays between us and is not told to anyone else, just like we do not share what you privately disclose to us. And condition number two is that just as we agree to answer your questions about sensitive parts of our past lives, you agree to openly answer our questions about those parts of your life with us.”
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: Adolescents, Parents, and the Management of Personal Power