Once upon a time I saw a television documentary on lions. Or tigers. Or maybe bears. The species doesn’t matter. What matters is that the animals in question had sharp claws and scary teeth designed for death.
What matters even more is that the animal mothers fought with their dangerous teens on purpose. Why did the mothers fight? To give their teens fighting practice and to push them out into the big, bad world.
After watching that show, I suffered nightmares. I dreamed of fighting my own teenage children with their sharp claws and scary teeth. I worried about injury, about love, about damage. I thought about the big, bad world. I tossed and turned over scenes of murder, blood, gore.
Then one sunny day I had the bright idea to share my animal kingdom fears with my kids. Frequently. With every discipline and future-planning conversation. With reckless abandon.
After I decided to share my thoughts, my parenting changed. Instead of protecting my kids with happy fairy tales, I educated them with cold, hard tales about the world. Instead of remaining calm during parent-teen fights, I stood my ground by modeling good fighting behavior. I let my kids know that their fights with me were practice for their fights with the world.
Please note: I did not scratch or claw my kids. The human parent-teen fights I’m advocating in this article are non-physical fights designed to leave no injury, emotionally or otherwise.
But parents are not perfect. Despite our best intentions, not all of our non-physical fighting behavior will be effective, or respectful, or fair. But maybe that’s the point: not all the fights our kids will experience in adulthood will be against opponents who are effective, respectful, or fair. Some people fight dirty—with cuss words, ad hominem attacks, emotional claws, or other nastiness. And our kids themselves will not always fight fairly. For that reason, we need to show them how to apologize and how to learn from their fighting mistakes.
I reminded my kids that when they become adults, they must fend for themselves. I reminded them that parents generally have no legal duty of support once a child turns eighteen years old. I wanted them to realize that children must grow up, adults must grow old, and the old must die. Life is a cycle that every person will jump off.
I wanted my kids to know early on that their education is their business for their futures. I gave my kids early freedom to make their own education choices. I emphasized that their education choices would have repercussions for their futures.
Rather than isolating my kids in private schools or wealthy communities filled with children of the rich, we lived in diverse communities and our kids attended schools that included families from all walks of life. My kids learned the differences between poverty and sufficiency. They learned educational pathways to sufficiency. They learned to make education choices for themselves, for their own goals.
So, what’s my advice to parents about how to parent and educate their children into the teen years and beyond?
1. Realize you and your children are animals with many instincts.
2. Let your children sharpen their verbal claws by fighting against you.
3. Teach your children how to argue as adults in the world.
4. Tell your children that your financial support will reach an end point.
5. Show your children a wide variety of stations in life, from poverty, to sufficiency, to wealth.
6. Help your children learn the paths to each of those stations in life.
7. Instead of directing your teenagers’ educational paths, let them make their own education choices as much as reasonably possible.
8. Alert your children of the consequences of their various choices.
9. Push them out into the world, with love.
10. Allow them freedom to travel from station to station in life as their passions might require.