Here’s the thing about making “new” rules to living with young adults: The rules are not new at all. Prophets and philosophers have been talking about them for centuries. It’s not a question of deciding yourself whether you’re going to be a “strict” or “lenient” parent now. Today’s 15 to 22-year-olds are not standing around hoping their parents will understand. They take it for granted, they insist on it, and if it is not forthcoming, they’ll let you know, for sure. In ways that you don’t really want to deal with. So, why not gracefully put into action these golden rules of parenting? No one is going to write them for you on a tablet of stone. You’re going to have to write them yourself, preferably with the help and involvement of your resident young adult.
Negative drivers are a no-no: Maybe many of us grew up on a diet of “Keep getting grades like this, and you’ll definitely get a job sweeping the streets”, and variations on this theme. It didn’t really work then and it definitely does not work now. Earlier, children accepted this kind of talk from parents, keeping their hurt pride and bruised egos to themselves. Today, kids will rebel and make you eat your words or, perhaps, completely close down communication. So, we just have to drop the “awfulizing” and the grim predictions. Not only do they not work, they rob young people of the will to dream.
Watch those presumptions: It is pointless to box your teenager in with your perceptions of his or her potential. A parent who kept telling her 18-year-old daughter not to waste time visiting art shows since, “your drawings were never good and all this art business is not for us middle-class people” is, six years later, proudly talking about her daughter Kavya’s fast-rising career with an art auction house. Beyond a point, we know little about what our kid is capable of, in which direction he or she would want to go, what avenues will open up for him, and which doors she will confidently knock on later.
Chuck the guilt-tripping: Again, it may have been one of those much-used screwdrivers from the parenting toolkit of yesteryears, but it’s of no use today. One could go as far as to say that guilt is perhaps the single most mentally crippling emotion in a parent-child relationship. We may, on the face of it, get our teenagers to fall in line by whining on about how we have sacrificed our own career/social life/needs for his future. But guilt is a cruel and perverse taskmaster, invisibly eating away from your kid’s psyche while visibly getting her to “do the right thing”.
Take it as it comes: Says Shaila Bal, a professor of economics and mother of two teenaged daughters: “You have to be willing to accept communication and affection from your teenager in the ‘currency’ in which they deal.” Stop expecting long confiding conversations, such as the ones you had when your 12-year-old daughter used to tell you every little detail of what happened during the day in school, in her head, even in the bathroom. “My daughters Amala and Avani used to write me long letters whenever they went away on camp or to their grandparents, even if it was just for four or five days. Today, they’re 17 and 20; one of them studies in another city. I was hoping for long detailed emails or a long call. But I realize there’s no point getting upset and saying ‘I don’t count SMS as a form of communication at all’.” Bal quite matter-of-factly says: “Consider yourself lucky and loved if you’re on their SMS list.”
Don’t insist on individualism: Much of the teenage behaviour that we find objectionable results from their wanting to conform to peer group tastes, such as their choice of clothes, accent and entertainment. This conformity to a group look or way of behaving is a natural part of development. “I’ve decided to back off and avoid critical comments about some of these relatively harmless personal choices,” says Amita Srivastava, mother of 19-year-old Ridhi. Intervene only if your teenager’s behaviour is truly harmful, illegal or compromises his or her safety.
There are going to be boyfriends and girlfriends: Don’t shirk sex education. And no fuzzy stuff; it’s not enough to vaguely jab at some anatomy-type book; you need to have ongoing multilayered conversations about it—the entire physical, social and emotional implications of it all. Accept that your young adult is going to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and could perhaps get sexually active, too. You may think it’s too early or inappropriate, but it just makes better sense to accept the possibility and act accordingly. Which doesn’t mean there are no rules about sleepovers, mixed holidays, etc. “However, be realistic in your head about the possibilities,” advise counsellors Dr Rajan and Minnu Bhonsale. “And that’s all the more reason you need to talk about sex and its physical and emotional dimensions with your teenager,” they add.
Offensive talk: While we can expect and accept some back talk and challenge to our authority and opinions from teenagers, don’t tolerate offensive talk. Teenagers may express disagreement loudly, with sulks or even door-banging and hanging up on you; but you have to draw the line at disrespectful remarks, such as calling you stupid, an idiot, or worse; mocking or mimicking you or grandparents or other elders.
Bribing: Whatever the current “trend” seems to be, it is really a parenting no-no to fish your young adult out of a tight spot by bribing and wheedling on his or her behalf—whether it’s a traffic offence, grace marks/attendance in college or producing fake certificates for employers. When we moan about corruption in our country, we have no business teaching our kids the ins and outs of it.
Of course, it’s a high-wire act—balancing between your own ideas about money, morality, manners and marriage, and your young adult’s thoughts on these issues.
One last rule:If it all gets too overwhelming, don’t hesitate to ask for outside help—going to a counsellor is not a sign of “weakness” and “failure” as a parent.
Backchat on the truths you need to get used to when dealing with your adult children
The children of neon “I wish they would accept that we are at our best after 9pm. I feel sleepy only at 5 in the morning. I would happily go to college at night.”
Dhruv, 20, student and part-time jobber
At ease with their bodies “I wear what I like. If I’m comfortable in it, she should let me wear it—as long as it’s not obscene.”
Fawzia, 18,student and trainee
Papa don’t preach “I’ve never liked sports. My dad went on about it since I was 12. Last year, I told him politely to can it. Tennis and golf may have built his character, fine. It’s not for me.”
Ankush, 18, student and avid astronomer
They’re nobody’s fools “My parents don’t get along at all. But they live together like hypocrites ‘for the children’. And the irony is that both my sister and I avoid going home at dinner time because the atmosphere gets us down.”
Dennis, 21, at his first job
They do appreciate you “I can talk about anything with my mom. I told her once that I was unsure whether I found boys attractive or girls. She didn’t freak out; she helped me think and feel my way through it with a counsellor.”
Gayatri, 22, fitness professional
(As told to Gouri Dange)
(The writer, Gouri Dange, is Lounge columnist and Pune-based family counsellor)