United We Parent: Raising Teens and Loving It Our Secret? RUIN THEIR LIVES. EVERY DAY. by Manya Dotson For those of you who are contemplating children, but are afraid that they will ruin your relationship, I am here to tell you that having kids does not have to signal the end of your marriage. And for those of you in the thick of little children who are looking forward and wondering what the next eighteen years of your marriage is going to look like, I am here to tell you that it can look good. (Thank goodness, right?) THE TEEN ZONE My husband, Brian, and I have four adolescents between us: two boys, two girls, aged eighteen, fifteen, fourteen, and almost ten. When we tell people this, they usually groan knowingly, or look haunted, or comfort us, or chortle and wish us luck. It seems that the world at large looks at adolescence as a colossal ordeal to be endured. At best, the culture would have us believe, you batten down the hatches and survive it. At worst it destroys your marriage and/or something unthinkable happens. Brian and I have chosen to take a different view on this paradigm. We think that framing the teen years as torture will guarantee it is so. And since this phase is going to span, oh, twenty years of our lives together, aiming for mere survival is unacceptable for all involved. Our kids have their moments, of course, and sometimes they have a veritable torrent of moments. Today alone we have a smorgasbord of struggles ranging from a scholarship threatened by a rough semester, to a decision about whether to keep or shave off dreadlocks that have taken three years to grow, to super-stinky armpits on a kid who refuses to bathe, to a kid with an older and sexually experienced romantic partner who wants to sleep over after the prom. But overall, our teens love themselves, they love each other, and they love us. So far none of them drinks, does drugs, or has fallen down so hard we couldn’t scrape them up. They are physically active, healthy, curious, and engaged in life. They are awake and (mostly) polite. We have family Facebook messenger chats filled with snark, group hugs, and epic vacations. We still gather after family dinner and work our way through awesome read aloud books or have dance parties complete with a little laser light thrower. They all think we are the most inappropriate adults around. We think that’s awesome. And somehow, the challenge of helping these young people cross the bridge to a healthy and bright future seems to be bringing Brian and me even closer together as a couple. United we Parent We have all heard the adage: “good parents present a united front.” We definitely ascribe to that philosophy, but we found it was important for us to define it in concrete terms for ourselves, because—like most things—the devil is in the details. “United-Front Parenting” is sort of like “common courtesy”—it can look really different to different people, and it’s all wrapped up in how we were raised. Parenting brings to the fore all of the beliefs you hold about how things “should” be—and you probably don’t even know the layers of your own shoulds until you are trying to impart them to others. For us, United-Front Parenting is NOT blanket pre-approval of all of the parenting decisions we see the other person make. Nor does it mean that we never go back on parenting decisions. And it definitely doesn’t mean that we pretend like the other parent can do no wrong. For us, United-Front Parenting is built on three foundational principles: 1. We support each other in having great relationships with the kids. We don’t compete to be the “favorite” parent (or the “nice” parent), which means we take turns being good cop and bad cop and both uphold the agreed upon action. We never trash-talk the other parent, or roll our eyes at the other with the kids. We do try to help kids stay out of trouble when we know that the other parent is feeling tense or sensitive. We really try not to knee-jerk react, and buy time to talk and decide together what to do. In our house, adults take time outs too. If we think the other person is going too far then we talk with them about it in private—not the kids—and encourage them to go back to the kid and apologize and walk back the punishment. If a kid complains about the other parent, we will coach the kid on how to have a productive discussion with the parent in question, and we might even broker the talk—but we will not deliver the message, or change the decision without consultation. 2. Our relationship with each other is at least as important as our relationship with the kids. With little kids the physical demands, sleeplessness, and their dependency make it very hard to carve out private time, but with older kids it is possible. It still takes effort and discipline. Our culture tells us that good parents sacrifice everything for their kids and spend every spare minute running around to kids’ activities. We don’t buy it. We aggressively take time to hang out alone, cultivate intimacy, and really talk about what’s going on. And truth be told? A lot of that time is spent laughing our assess off about the kids. 3.This leads me to our third principle: We Ruin Their Lives. Every Day. We figure that no matter what we do, they will probably feel that we have ruined their lives a good deal of the time, so we have made it into a game. I mean, why not? We’re so good at it! And we don’t hide it. We get up in the morning and talk about it in front of them while we have breakfast. What can we do today to ruin their lives? Whenever someone is whining about how something is unfair we ask: Wait… is it happening? Are we ruining your life? (Then we high-five.) This may look like we are ganging up and amusing ourselves at their expense. We sort of are. Because if you can stay united through a sense of humor, teenage shit is FUNNY. Life-ruining moves that we have actually followed through on include the following: Nobody has computers in their rooms, and everybody under sixteen has dumb phones. Everybody turns in their phones during dinner, while doing homework, and at 8:00 p.m. In our house you either have privacy or access to technology. The truth is that if you can’t do it in the living room, you shouldn’t be doing it online, because there is no such thing as privacy online. Lives. Ruined. When one kid came home with their best-ever report card we took them to the local pizza place to celebrate. During the meal we stood up and made the entire crowd give the kid a standing ovation for their amazing effort. Life ruined. One daughter tried to wear a pair of leggings, a skimpy camisole and Uggs out of the house. We discussed why this isn’t appropriate (but Moooom, it’s just a shirt and pants!) and she put on a tunic, which she promptly removed the second she left the house. When I discovered it, I did not yell. Instead, I consulted with Brian and we prepared. I put on stretch pants and a camisole and boots. Brian wore running tights, a tank top and hiking boots. Our youngest wore leggings, an undershirt and moonboots. When we came downstairs to take this girl to the slumber party of the year, she screamed. “What?” said we. “It’s just a shirt and pants.” And we all accompanied her to the slumber party she was dying to attend that night and walked her to the door. Life. Ruined. Sugar is sweeter, bitter more bitter. One of my (nerdy) life strategies is to research the crap out of pretty much everything—and especially challenging stuff. Figuring out what the hell to do feels easier when I have a clear idea what is going on. So I was really excited to find a bunch of cool new research out on adolescent brain development. This stuff has really helped Brian and me understand some of the more exasperating aspects of our kids’ behavior and be more deliberate about our parenting style. According to the world’s expert on the adolescent brain, Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., the adolescent brain is developmentally unique. Memories from adolescence are some of the most vivid memories that we have—it’s something about the way they are imprinted. Also, the pleasure mechanisms are turned way up, while the impulse control dials are still being invented. This means that sweet and pleasurable things are literally sweeter and more pleasurable—and that it’s waaaay hard for adolescents to stop enjoying them. And bitter/sad things are profoundly more bitter/sad and vivid. They aren’t creating drama for its own sake (well, sometimes they are)—they are sincerely experiencing life very intensely. Remember that? Another thing that we found helpful to know about this age group is that they are profoundly experiential learners. You can say something fifty times, but they can’t really hear/believe it, until they think the thought or experience the experience themselves. They learn through taking risks and living the consequences of pushing limits. They are also developmentally driven to figure out where you end and they begin. So they contradict—just to develop those muscles and flex their independence. This doesn’t mean that they don’t care what their parents think—they care very much and need us very much. Ironically it is this closeness that begets the opposition. They just have to argue to say: I exist as a separate human being too! Even when they actually agree. HOW OUR KIDS ARE MAKING US BETTER AT BEING MARRIED Learning these things has helped Brian and me tap into deeper wells of empathy, be better listeners, and fight back knee-jerk reactions, which has actually been really good for our own relationship too. These are some of our best concrete strategies: When in doubt, we breathe, pause, and say: Tell me more about that. Or help me understand what that’s all about? The key to this is actually meaning it, and being honestly curious about where they are coming from. If nothing else, having adolescents is an opportunity to hone your listening skills. Try reflective listening (repeating back to them what you think they are saying, in your own words: “So if I get you correctly, you are saying that you were sewing me a mother’s day present and you fell asleep on a pin cushion and that’s how your ears ended up triple pierced and infected?”) or looping, which is just repeating words that they said and asking more about it (“Mmm… you are afraid of being NORMAL. Tell me about that”). Also, put down your technology. Listening deeply and sincerely does not have to lead to approval, but shaming them is destructive, and long lectures about consequences just get tuned out. I find it more effective to lead them through the process of thinking about consequences: “So, buddy, what will you do when she gets pregnant? What do you mean by “support her?”… “Would you still be able to play soccer if you were working at the movie theatre every night?”… etc. Turns out this is a great way to communicate with Brian too. We try to be our whole selves with them. It is so tempting to pretend like we never made any mistakes. We want to show them the best of ourselves and strategically omit the worst in the hopes that they will do it better than we did—or out of fear of being vulnerable. But they can learn so much more from us—and trust us so much more—if we tell the truth. So, when asked, I admitted to our oldest that I had smoked pot a few times and that sometimes it was okay, but also one time I had a seizure. I also told him about the kid in my dorm who passed out and ended up grilling his face on the radiator. The RA found him because it smelled like he was cooking hamburgers in his room. I said: it’s always your choice—but personally I feel best when I know I’m the one making clear decisions about my body with sober people I trust and I’m not breaking the law. Getting a little high in Amsterdam with my very sober husband? Maybe (but beware seizures. That shit is strong). Getting high at a frat party my first weekend on campus? F*CK no. I have found that being self-aware and accepting who I am—and was—with compassion makes me more connected to both the kids and Brian. Finally, we just love their stinky, angsty, pleasure-loving, hyper-sensitive selves like crazy. Grab them and hug them and kiss them until they melt into it. Tell them how proud you are of the awesome decisions they make. Look for the good and affirm, affirm, affirm. Go on the class trip and cuss just enough for the other kids to say: Your mom is cool. If somebody seems out of sorts, schedule a lunch date and take them out of school for it. If somebody gets dumped before Homecoming, dress up, and have a fancy date with them at the swankest place in town. Call them on your way home from work just to chat. Keep up with their gossip. Hang up their artwork in your office. Allow the occasional “sick of school” days. Show them Scarleteen.com and how to get to Planned Parenthood. Cook together and have dance parties. And above the melee, catch your spouse’s eye, enjoy the joke, mime a high-five, and revel in the amazing people you are making together. You may just find, as we have, that being parents makes you more united as a couple than ever. Every day. Manya Dotson Contributor Since leaving NYC’s glossy magazine editorial world in 1999, Manya has been living in Sub-Saharan Africa trying to be useful raising money for, designing, and managing public health projects. Manya (who is an American) currently lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya with her beloved husband, Brian, and two daughters, aged 14 and 9.