There are countless articles out there on the internet for dealing with teenagers. Talk to them. Listen to them. Set boundaries. Discuss consequences. Remember to respect their ever-growing maturity. Choose your battles. Invite over their friends. These are all good tips. They all help. However, the best tip I ever learned was to overwhelm the ugliness of adolescence with deliberate and consistent acts of love. We titled our strategy “The Kindness Protocol.”
The Kindness Protocol required us to find secret ways to say “I love you.” In The Princess Bride, Westley says “As you wish” and means, “I love you.” With teens, we had to figure out new ways to say, “As you wish,” since saying “I love you” felt too sentimental, too maudlin. (Sure, I say it anyway sometimes, but I also want them to know it in their bones, which means I have to slip the equivalent of “As you wish” into their lives the way I put secret vegetables into their younger siblings’ dinners). We text notes like “Have a great day” to each of them. I sometimes get a “Thanks Mom” or something like it back. Other times, nothing, but they get one on their phone every day before school gets started. When they come home from school, just like their younger counterparts, they want a snack. Favorite treats like ice mocha for one, fresh beets for the runner, or a late run for ice cream when the day’s been hard are quiet ways of reminding these not-quite-adult individuals that they are infinitely loved.
Playing with your teens is an important component of keeping that connection between you and your teen child vibrant and alive. It’s a way of saying Not only do I love you, but I love spending time just being with you. Whether it’s a group game on the computer, or a challenge over hearts or pool, or being creamed royally on a virtual race track, or schooling them in chess, or having a throw down game of Scrabble—you get time just to be with each other, instead of being on each other’s to-do list. We had to learn to schedule play, especially as the tasks of teenagerhood began to take over our relationship. For every “You need to study for the S.A.T, schedule a college visit, or work on your common application,” we tried to pair it with “Let’s watch a movie, or let’s play some Wiffle ball in the back yard, or how about a game of Magic?” Finding the right game to tickle our various teens’ fancy sometimes took some doing. Otherwise, parenting in the teen years can feel to both the teen and the parent like a giant neverending nag.
Sometimes showing love via words or deeds with one’s high schoolers isn’t easy. I have one that likes to assert her opinion, and when you discuss or debate, she shuts down, insistent on maintaining a point of view even if in error. I have another who tends to talk in imperative tone even over the tiniest of things. It is these porcupine moments that make parenting a teen very frustrating. Yet, these prickly times are when they need the reassurance of our love most. Last week, my high schooler woke up on the wrong side of bed. After a morning of sniping, she decided to take a nap. I sent a message on her phone. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. Hopefully, when you get up, we can start the day over, and it will be easier. We can begin again.” She wrote back, “Good Morning, even if it’s afternoon.” and the rest of the day sailed smoothly.
Humor helps too. It’s another gentle way of showing love while not being sentimental. One night, while folding laundry, my son phoned my cell to ask me, “Are you going to the grocery store?” I asked, “Are you calling me from the comfort of your bed, to ask if I’m going to go out this evening and run an errand for you?” “No. I’m not. I’m at school, working hard. I would never dream of doing such a thing.” We both laughed, and he did come out with me to the store so we could get supplies for his track meet the next day.
Praying for your teens seems like a given. After all, today’s youth have much more to contend with than we ever did growing up. They need us praying for them and with them. I know sometimes my kids roll their eyes when they see me holding the rosary, or with my Magnificat out, but I also know sometimes they’re grateful—and occasionally, it pulls them in too. Sometimes they ask for prayers, and when they do, it’s an “as you wish” type moment. The cumulative effect of the Kindness Protocol, of doing these sort of covert and overt “I love you’s” over and over and over again, is the beautiful fruit, an unsolicited hug, a warm smile, and relationships with teenagers that aren’t always combative. These gifts of the spirit make parenting a teen a glorious, joyful, luminous experience.