Dear Dr. Brian

Dear Dr. Brian,

Enjoyed hearing you talk about the disrespect and narcissism with today’s youth. I wish you were the standard bearer. I have a teen who has issues, especially since the school system is in direct conflict with what I call “discipline”. What is your real resort when other adults make it seem like real enforcement is morally wrong or illegal and your child brings that home? Just talking with today’s youth and using compromise yields nothing.

Dad Against the World

Dear Dad Against the World,

Thanks for watching me on The O’Reilly Factor last week. Even though I know it feels like it sometimes, you’re not alone in trying to do the right thing by your teen. Over the years, I’ve had many good parents tell me that their efforts to instill structure, discipline, values, and character in their children’s lives are chronically being thwarted by their kids’ friends’ overly-permissive parents. I recall one mother asking me, “How am I supposed to tell my high school daughter not to drink beer when the mother down the street is serving it up every weekend?” And all too often, school officials, fearing the ire of the permissive crowd, neither reinforce what good parents are doing at home nor counter what permissive parents aren’t doing at home. So, while I have no “magic” to make counter-productive adults (nor their counter-productive offspring) disappear from your teen’s life, here, generally-speaking, is what I think (and I’m assuming a fairly “normal” teen here, i.e. a teen without what we might call “special needs,” e.g. a developmental disability, mental disorder, etc., which could complicate matters and change my thoughts in a specific case).

First off, the “bartending” mother whom I mentioned above was committing crimes that could’ve gotten kids killed, and she needed to be reported to local law enforcement. But I know it’s not always that easy. As you noted, it can feel like you’re getting nowhere with a teen by talking, but I think it’s still important to try. I think it’s important to be frank with teens about the fact that it’s your moral, ethical, and legal duty to get them to the age of majority as physically and mentally healthy and as well-educated as possible so that they can go on to become independent, productive, and hopefully happy Americans. Therefore, instead of trying to be his or her “friend,” you have to exercise your moral and legal parental authority in such a way that you’ll be able to live with yourself if something terrible happens. It’s amazing to me, for example, how many mothers can’t seem to wait for their high school daughters to be their “Sex and the City” gal pals, so they dress the daughters up like they’re 25, fund them like they’re 25 (and working college-graduate jobs), give them freedom like they’re 25, and then wonder why they’re drinking and having sex like they’re 25. I’m not for confining a teen to school or home until age 18 by any means – I think that’s potentially-destructive, too, because it means he or she won’t get any practice making his or her own decisions until you’re nowhere nearby when he or she makes a bad one. Parents, and other adults who are “in loco parentis” (“stand in” for a parent, e.g. a school administrator), have a duty not only to protect a child from harm by others but also from harming him/herself long-term via his or her own childish impulsiveness, and as I said on the show, consequences are key to both of those efforts.

I often talk about a “power-responsibility continuum” with teens, whereby parents begin with 100% power to make decisions for their teens, because the parents bear 100% responsibility for the teens’ outcomes, but recognize that the goal is for substantially the reverse to be true, i.e. for the teens to have assumed substantially 100% responsibility for their outcomes and thus to have assumed substantially 100% of the power to make decisions for themselves, by the time the teens reach age 18. If you agree with that concept, then the goal is to gradually give teens power to make decisions for themselves to the extent that they establish sustained track records of exercising that power responsibly (and taking back some power if/when the teens go off track). No, teens probably aren’t going to articulate much appreciation for what you’re trying to do, especially when you say that you’ll be erring on the side of caution when you’re in doubt, but again, I think the words are important. Your teen may not tell you, let alone thank you, until much later in life, but many a teen has told me that his or her mom or dad was the “little voice inside my head” that gave the teen a reason to do the right thing at a critical decision point.

You seem like the kind of parent who’s probably already involved enough in your teen’s life to know where and with whom he or she is and what he or she is doing, at least most of the time. If so, that’s good, because you may need to place some restrictions on where he or she goes (certainly via any vehicle furnished by you), with whom, and what he or she does there, unless/until the teen establishes the responsibility to avoid such people and situations on his or her own, particularly if those people and places involve parents who actively or passively contribute to the delinquency (e.g. drunk driving) of their minors (and potentially yours, too). As hard as it can seem sometimes, I think it’s helpful for concerned, involved parents to seek one another out so they can talk about what they’re trying to do for their kids. They can vent frustrations with the permissive crowd and with school administrators, share information with one another, and reinforce one another’s resolve in the face of teenage retorts like, “You’re the only dad who’s not letting his kid go to this [music festival, two hours away, for an entire weekend, at age 16]!”

I don’t know how old your teen is, so at this point, the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages, but at least if you also have a teen-to-be (i.e. a younger child), I think a private school is worth considering, if you can swing it financially (and I’m constantly advocating for school-choice vouchers so that more parents can swing it), in part because the parents who are willing to make the sacrifice to send their kids there tend to at least share some common values, and in part because those parents then tend to have at least a little more sway with school officials. That’s not universal, though, and it’s not always a good thing. I’ll never forget the kid who told me how disillusioned he was when his private school kept allowing the same delinquent son of wealthy parents to commit offenses for which the punishment listed in the school’s student handbook was expulsion. When I called the school’s president to inquire as to what I should tell my patient, I was told that “Jesus would want us to try to help him [the delinquent],” whereupon I inquired further as to what Jesus might want for the hundreds of other kids whose learning experiences, both academically and about cause and effect in life generally, were being degraded by the delinquent’s presence. It took a semester, but the delinquent was eventually “encouraged to attend an alternative school, better-suited to his special needs,” i.e. kicked out (better late than never).

A recent survey of tens of thousands of high school students from across America found that a third of them had stolen something from a store within the past year, and a subsequent survey of American college students found that frighteningly few of them could identify a moral dilemma with which they had been faced, let alone articulate a system for the analysis and resolution of a moral dilemma. I’m worried about their futures on multiple levels – about their future relationships, about their future competitiveness in a global economy, about their future parenting – but I’m really not that surprised. It seems like fewer parents are talking to their kids about morals and values these days, in part because of the parents’ own self-absorption, in part because more parents are single (so the parental availability in the home has been cut in half), in part because parents feel guilty (about being divorced and/or absent, etc.), and in part because of the misguided notion that the kids should somehow have life easier than the parents had it (I’ve had many successful fathers tell me that they don’t want their sons to have to do some of the very things – like work for their own spending money – that inspired the fathers to be successful in the first place). Too many parents seem to have misunderstood, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” as a commandment rather than a caution (and I’m not recommending that anyone actually take a rod to his or her child – I’m just recommending more structure, discipline, and emphasis on character development than many parents these days are bothering to provide).

You probably grew up like me – if I had gotten in trouble at school, I would’ve been in more trouble at home! Today, teachers and school administrators, at least in public schools, are afraid – overly afraid in my opinion – of being sued if they talk about anything that even remotely smacks of religion (e.g. morals and values) or points out shame-worthy parental failings at home, and if you think your teen’s high school teachers and administrators are unhelpful in reinforcing your values, just wait until he or she gets to one of most (but not all) American colleges! As I said on the show, no discipline at home is a big part of the reason why so many kids are cussing out teachers at school, and no discipline at school either is a big part of the reason why so many kids are ending up in front of criminal judges (and bankruptcy judges) later on, having essentially become society’s problems to solve at that point. Also, fewer Americans are going to church these days, not that I think kids can’t develop good morals and values outside of church, but if they’re not getting morals and values instruction at home, and they’re not getting it at school, and they’re not getting it at church, it’s really no wonder they’re not getting it. It generally takes an adult mind and significant motivation to derive a system of morals and values by reason alone.

You also seem like a parent who probably already pays attention to and regulates what your teen is doing via electronic technology, especially when it’s furnished by you (e.g. an Internet connection, cell phone, etc.), as, I think, is your right and obligation. Even if he or she isn’t meeting sexual predators online or trafficking in the kinds of posts and texts that could otherwise compromise his or her future, excessive social media allows kids to portray only those aspects of themselves that they perceive to be socially desirable, to interact only with “friends,” and to somewhat delude themselves into thinking that lots of people are interested in everything they say and do, which doesn’t help when we want them to be seeing themselves as part of something larger than themselves and to be thinking about the impacts of their actions on the lives of others. As I also said on the show, if Narcissus lived in this “age of entitlement,” social media would be his reflecting pool. I use social media to disseminate information and to keep in touch with friends, family, and people who are interested in my work, but when young people (or older people for that matter) use it as a substitute for real lives, it doesn’t just reinforce self-absorption, it can reinforce self-deception, neither of which is likely to help them with their real-life professional and social relationships.

Finally, you mentioned “compromise.” If your teen has established a track record of responsibility with respect to, for example, a curfew, you might make some conservative compromises as you move him or her along the power-responsibility continuum, but I generally don’t recommend “compromise” when it comes to the values that you believe are fundamentally important to your child’s healthy development. If you think there’s a chance that you may actually be “over the top” about something, or if you’re being told that by others, then that’s a good thing to discuss with other parents and perhaps with a values-oriented professional for some perspective (especially if you’re being told that something is illegal), but as I said, you ultimately have to be able to live with yourself if something terrible happens. Teens may not often show it while they’re teens, but believe me, they know deep down when somebody loves them enough to do the right thing by them, even when it’s difficult – even when they make it difficult – and I’d hope that a dad who’s trying hard to do the right thing will eventually be rewarded for his perseverance, if not in a “Thank you, Dad” at his teen’s college graduation or wedding, then at least in witnessing his teen’s happy, healthy future.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

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