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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Parenting teens

Parenting teens . . . in most cultures involves conflict, part of the movement from dependence to independence, from a relationship of authority to one of mutuality. I'm working with five young people ranging in age from 19 to 23, and observing their reception in the community as well as hearing some of their issues from home life (yes, thanks to Heidi and my new Tuesday community health schedule I actually have time to listen to them sometimes!) has given me pause for thought. Some issues in this culture and in this period of history conspire to make the inevitable growing pains more severe: this generation will be more educated than any previous one, and more westernized, so that an older teen could be tempted to despise parents' habits. In the case of harmful practices like polygamy or wife beating, this is a good and necessary cultural shift. Yet respect for elders is a pillar of African culture. A twenty-year-old must show subservience to a 40-year-old parent or teacher. My students must do their community health teaching with assurance, yet be perceived to be humble. At the same time fathers can feel impotent when unable to provide ever-increasing school fees, or when unable to guide from experience as a child moves into never-before-dreamed-of paths like University. In a place where authority has been based on force, physical prowess, and the wisdom ascribed to age . . . we are shifting into an era where sheer muscle does not translate into survival edge, and where knowledge of the world favors the young. Yet we expect these emerging leaders to behave with humility and respect even when their elders intentionally snub them to show who is boss (cruel remarks or harsh demands perhaps the only way they know how to maintain supremacy) . . . and we expect the parents to manage with grace the balance of discipline and freedom that a teen needs to thrive and launch, even though most have practiced a pretty hands-off style since the child could walk. I don't see many people doing it well. And my heart is with both the teens and the parents, struggling to find their way in a rapidly changing world, to know they are loved and valued, to test relationship and feel its security.

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