Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Teens, Control, and the Nature of Love

Possibly the article I've received the most angry and condescending reactions to, of anything I've ever written, is my post on teenage rebellion (especially when it was posted, with heavy edits that I did not approve prior to posting, on the supposedly alternative parenting site Offbeat Mama).  And several months ago when that same article was published on Scarleteen, another comment (which we chose to delete because of it's condescending tone and the perspective it seemed to be coming from) got me thinking about the most common (and often very angry) criticism of the respectful parenting of teens: the idea of boundaries.

I feel like the way people talk about boundaries is the same way they talk about structure: as if both are these external things that are very important in creating "Disciplined," "Educated," and otherwise useful (aka "Productive") human beings. Things that the good and responsible adults (parents, teachers, etc.) are supposed to construct and enforce.

But, the same way that structure, when it comes to unschooling, is a mix of the natural rhythms found in the home and community and whatever the unschooler themselves chooses to consciously build in their life, I think boundaries are often similar. There are boundaries, both natural and constructed, in all aspects of life. I feel like everything from physical space limitations and physical abilities to laws, rules, and money could all be considered "boundaries" of a sort. Many of these boundaries should be challenged and pushed, in my opinion, but currently they all do exist, to some extent, for everyone.

Yet when I most often see and hear people talking about boundaries, it's very specifically the rules parents construct and enforce on their children. It's most often in the context of "I can really tell your parents never properly enforced any boundaries for you!" Once, on the aforementioned Offbeat Mama publishing of my rebellion article, someone even said that "Kids need, and deep down WANT, limits and boundaries," which is one of those things that, when writing about it, I need to first take a deep breath before I can go on to calmly discuss and dispute it, since my first instinct is just to say "fuck you," which isn't very helpful. But the incredible superiority and condescension contained in such statements takes my breath away, and brings home to me in a very profound way how terribly teenagers are looked at and treated in this culture.

Every pro-enforced-boundaries discussion comes back to the idea that teens are not full and complete human beings capable of making their own decisions and living their own lives. They're irresponsible, "unfinished," untrustworthy, and otherwise faulty.  I have very little patience for the condescension, rigid attemtps at control, and outright disgust and mockery that teens regularly have to deal with, because ultimately, all of this is sending some very harmful messages: there's something wrong with you. You're not good enough. Because of your age, you don't deserve to be treated well and fairly.

There are plenty of rationalizations made for the treatment teens receive, of course. From the scientific there's-something-wrong-with-their-brains (instead of celebrating the difference as just another stage of life), to "they secretly like being controlled", also known as control as a sign of love. There was recently a discussion on Facebook about teens and access to the internet, with much discussion by some parents in the thread about spying on their children (literally going into their email and Facebook accounts, and looking at their web history), and informing their children they were spying because they love them. Now, I can respect that those parents really do love their children, and that their actions are driven by fear which is driven by love, but I don't think these parents realize just how differently their teens most likely see things. What I posted on that thread was:
Snooping on a teen's internet activities is every bit as bad as reading their diary, as far as I'm concerned. Both are WRONG and a major violation of trust. It's horrifying for me to even think of the betrayal I would have felt had my parents hacked into any of my online accounts, checked history on my computer, or anything else. Good relationships and open communication are what's needed to help keep teens safe, NOT creepy things like reading their email (and Facebook messages, etc.)!
The idea that control shows love makes sense if you're used to there only being two options when it comes to parenting teens: pay lots of attention to your kids by placing lots of rules and restrictions on them, or ignore them entirely and neglect their needs. But once you realize that there are more options than that, you can see that control as love is far from the best way things can be. And in a very personal way, if control equaled teens feeling loved, and a lack of control equaled teens feeling unloved, I, and all my unschooling friends whose parents didn't/don't parent in a controlling and authoritarian way, should feel resentful and unloved. Which is very, very far from the case, as most of the unschoolers I know have really wonderful relationships with their parents. If you have a relationship that includes good communication, which is pretty essential for good relationships of any sort, then the love will be obvious. The idea that control equals love is really just a botched version of attention equals love, and parents can be and are attentive, caring, and loving without being controlling.

People seem to envision a state of utter chaos if teens are allowed freedom in the choices they make and the lives they lead, and while I find that an unlikely outcome to say the least, I do think there's some kernel of truth to the fear. Teens are more likely to be risk-takers. Teens are change-makers. And I imagine an entire population of trusted, respected, empowered teenagers participating actively in the communities around them would really shake things up. There's a lot of adults who really wouldn't like that! But I think it would do the world a great deal of good to embrace the strengths and unique viewpoint that teens bring to the table. Teenagers are important. And their voices and experiences need to be acknowledged as such.

What are or were your experiences, as a teen or as the parent of a teen, with discussions around "boundaries," control, privacy, and similar things? How did the way your parents parented effect you, and what things do you consider positive or negative about the decisions they made? Leave a comment and join the discussion!


  1. We had rules and bounderies but they were more for showing that we the teens had respect for our parents. Meaning they knew where we were going and who we would be with and what time we planed to be home, which depending on if we had school the next day or not had an affect on that time. My parents trusted me and respected me enough to let me make my life choices but there is a flip side to that in showing the parent respect to let them know what those choices are. Do you just leave the house and not tell your parents where you are going or who you are with because I live at home and even at 22 I tell my parents those things because they get to know those things when I live with them because that is respecting my parents. I could just leave but I respect my parents enough to let them know that I am being safe.

    1. I feel like you're suggesting that without "rules and boundaries," teens won't respect their parents, when I believe that's not true at all! You respect those who treat you with respect. So I (and my nearly 19 year old sister) tell our parents where we're going and how late we're going to be out, as well! And they tell us the same. I've even been known to call a parent and say "where are you? You said you'd be home hours ago!" :) We live as a family, and respect each other enough to share important details about whereabouts, not because it's required (we never had curfews or anything or the sort), but because it's the kind thing to do.

  2. Good post, Idzie. Brave, too. ;-) I tell my husband where I'm going when I leave the house, and I don't pry into his email accounts, etc. When our daughters lived with us, I showed them the same respect. And, surprise, surprise, they did the same. With no rules.

    I see boundaries and schedules a bit differently, in that they can be things that some people like to create for themselves.

  3. When we show love, empathy, compassion and respect to our teen children, we can keep the attachment relationship healthy and our teens will see us as safe oases as they venture out into the world rather than as controlling dictators to escape. I am so happy everyday for the wonderful, loving relationship I have with my 18 year old unschooled son! :)

  4. "What are or were your experiences, as a teen or as the parent of a teen, with discussions around "boundaries," control, privacy, and similar things?"

    My parents loved me, but kids and teens were definitely considered secondclass citizens in my family of origin. Thankfully when I began to parent a different way than I was parented, my own mom and dad were pretty willing to support me. We had a lot of great discussions and today my mother, my sole surviving parent, is more of a child advocate than she was when I was growing up.

    Hating on teens is an American pasttime that has got to stop, far as I'm concerned. I'm so grateful for the many who wrote and worked in this field (child and teen rights/advocacy), and continue to do so. I was able to create a different script for my own family.

  5. I hate to post anonymously but I want to feel free to be honest. I am an unschooling parent and I am very grateful for your perspective. I completely agree, although my children are young yet.

    When I was in high school, I was at dinner with my family and another family, and my mom casually said to the other mother that she would absolutely read my diary if she suspected there was something she needed to know. Well, I immediately ran home and tore up every page I had written into tiny pieces and threw them away. I knew my words were not safe. I am happy she admitted it before she had the chance to snoop, but I will never forget how betrayed I felt by what she said and how she said it. Thank you so much for this. I hope lots of parents read it and are inspired by it.

    1. Ah, Anonymous. Your story reminded me of when I was 17 and had an abortion. I asked my mom to keep my experiences private and she said she would. Later, I found she'd written my sister a letter about it. I too felt betrayed and unsafe. That suuuuuuucked. I'm remembering that just now.

      Unschooling supplies us the opportunities to do better by our children, than we were done by.

  6. I was a teenager and am a mom of a teenager. It was definitely not easy growing up since it was a very controlling, aggressive environment. We were not permitted to share our views, ideas, thoughts, feelings and dreams with the adults. I was made to feel not good enough. I came from an overachieving household. No matter what I did was never good enough.
    I am so grateful to say that I broke this cycle with my own children. My children are good enough. I also do not snoop in my daughters' journals. The only time I ever read anything they write is is they ask me to and only then. My children need to know that they can express their feelings without being yelled at or told that they are wrong. One of the main reasons why my daughter is an Unschooler is due to the abuse, control, threats and harassment directly coming from the new Principal. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I think most people control younger children between the ages of 5 and 10 because they view them as "out of control" because of their lack of ability to self-regulate. Then, when they become teens, these children who were never helped to learn skills, are now old enough to rebel in order to express themselves. So, many parents feel a need for greater control.

    For me, when my children are in their growing years, particularly between 5 and 10, they are learning to self-regulate, make choices, understand themselves, and be balanced overall. This is the stage when I feel I needed to support them the most in gaining those important skills. It doesn't look pretty when you do things this way. But, by the time they reach the 11 to 13 year range, they have a lot of great skills, have confidence in their ability to make choices, and are really balancing out. It then becomes a time to watch them reach the stage of expressing themselves and becoming their own person and going after their own dreams. To me, the teen years are usually the best, and when I get to really nurture our mentoring relationship.

    To me, it starts in the 5-10 year range ... that's why the teen years are riddled with rebellion ... they have to figure it all out some time. My perspective and experience having done it 5 times now ... in the middle of 2 more.

  8. .... and I did come to the same conclusions in the course of parenting/​home&unschooling my 4 over the years!!.... you don't need control or punishment.... respect, love, attention, patience, communication, understanding, listening... and the child will incorporate and develop same qualities!!!

  9. furthermore, I think this extends to any relationship... even a government/people relationship or any hierachical relationship (which parent/child actually is).... you don't need control or punishment... in fact, all you then breed is controlling & punishing behavior...

  10. When I was a teen, I had no desire to be grown up already or to be an adult like most of my peers and I didn't understand why I was different from them. Now that I think about it, I think that the way my parent respected me and gave me some freedom must have been the reason.

    I remember my parents being super proud of the fact I didn't go into any rebellious phase and once again, it made me feel abnormal compared with others.

    It's scary like the desire to fit in is strong when you are a teen!

  11. Again, another well-thought out post. I love reading your thoughts...probably mostly because they reinforce the relationship and lifestyle I am living with my teenage daughter...
    Her feelings are extremely strong and I know that she appreciates it that she is free to express herself without boundaries.

    Peace, Karen

  12. "How did the way your parents parented effect you ..."

    Should this perhaps be "affect" with an "a" rather than "effect" with an "e"?

    1. Yes it should, but that is not really the point of the post, is it?
      Regardless of the fact that I do not fully agree with Idzie's ideas and philosophies, even some of the things stated in this conversation....
      Regardless of the fact that now I am guilty of the same infraction as you - butting in with nothing to add to the original conversation....
      Regardless of the fact that I catch myself often enough at being "grammar police"....
      If you have something to add to the conversation, by all means... - if not, then with as much (or as little) respect as it is due - butt out!

  13. I used to write fake diary entries in a kind of code for myself. I wrote the general outline of my life, but not enough to let anyone snooping know what was really going on. I never caught my parents reading it, but suspected that they were for sure because they would talk to me about things they could have only found in the diary. I felt violated, and like there was no real place to go for safety when I wanted to purge what was going on inside my head. Being a teen was hard at my house. There was zero trust, and I was a "good kid". If I was three minutes late, they assumed the worst in every possible way. I had "choices", but was guilted into doing what they wanted me to do. It's NOT okay.

  14. Love this post! Even though my son is just 18 months old, I have already thougth a lot about how he is going to grow up. As a teen I felt very lonely and disconnected, not because I was controlled by my parents, but because I didn't feel that I could talk to them about how i felt. They didn't share their life and feelings with me, so I didn't know how to do it either.

    I beleive the way of parenting that you are describing wouldn't leave a child alone like that. If I share my life when I'm a father, hopefully my son will share his when he feels the need to do so.

    By the way, I'm partly blaming you for making us move out of Sweden =) Your blog is one of the reasons me and my wife are convinced that unschooling is the only option, and homeschooling is unfortunately illegal here.