Q: Our son is going to be 13 next year, and we’re trying to be proactive about the coming storm. He’s been a good kid and relatively easy to raise to this point, but we’ve heard the horror stories and dread what may be around the corner. Do you have any tips?
A: The notion that biological changes going on during early adolescence predispose the young teen to all manner of difficult behavior is a myth belied historically, cross-culturally and by the fact that plenty of young teens are respectful, obedient and hard-working. The latter is conclusive evidence to the effect that despite hype to the contrary, there are no changes going on in the young adolescent brain that make inevitable any sort of problematic behavior.
In "Democracy in America," his 1830s study of the new colonies, Alexis de Toqueville praised the American teen’s good citizenship. In developing countries today, teens are responsible, trustworthy and possess a work ethic that would put even a good number of American adults to shame.
Granted, too many of today’s young teenagers are disrespectful, oppositional and irresponsible. I am convinced that this is due to a lack of proper authority during what I call the Decade of Discipline, which begins around the 3rd birthday and ends around the 13th. During that critical 10-year period, too many of today’s parents strive for relationships instead of providing proper formative leadership.
The almost inevitable result of this new parenting trend is children who reach adolescence lacking good decision-making and self-control skills. The resulting difficulties are not a matter of changes in the child’s brain — it’s the proverbial pigeons coming home to roost.
This is the very child who is most susceptible to negative peer influence. Lacking a sense of loyalty to his or her parents, which is fostered through loving leadership, the youngster is very likely to fall under the sway of kids who also lack that same sense of familial loyalty. In the extreme, the youngster’s drifting loyalty attaches to the street gang, which becomes, in effect, a surrogate family that provides authority the child has never consistently experienced.
If, to this point in your son’s life, you’ve been authority figures first and friends a distant-but-promising second, then you have little to worry about. Under those circumstances, there’s little likelihood that your son is suddenly going to morph into Master Hyde. Contrary to yet another myth, the child who is provided proper leadership during the Decade of Discipline is primed for optimal rapport with his/her parents as a teen.
In short, leadership is the horse that pulls the cart of a wonderful parent-child relationship during the child’s teen years. Shorter still, put first things first.