Recently I was at the house of friends when their 15-year-old daughter bounced down the stairs, obviously excited about attending a high school basketball game. As she collected coat and purse, her father came into the room.
''No drinking tonight, Amy,'' he said sternly. ''And don't let me catch you coming home with that boy from the next block. . . .''
''You'd better be in before curfew too, or you'll be grounded,'' his wife added. ''And another thing. . . .''
The lecture went on, dredging up Amy's past failings with dire warnings.
I stole a look at Amy. Her happy smile had been replaced by a sullen expression, edged with defiance.
Unfortunately, we parents often approach our children's teen years with a mixture of uncertainty and fear. Because we are aware of the physical and moral hazards awaiting our youngsters, we sometimes automatically assume that they will gravitate toward these dangers - unless we keep them in check with a heavy hand.
Yet, as a parent of four teen-agers, I've discovered that the reverse is true. If we assume the best about our teen-agers and express faith in their good judgment, they will often go to heroic lengths to live up to our opinion of them.
Assuming the best about our teens does not mean that we drift into complacency, abandon our moral code, or allow them to make their own rules. Nor do we burden them with unreasonable expectations - getting all A's, making the varsity team, or being class president. Assuming the best is, instead, an attitude that recognizes a teen's innate self-worth (even though his actions may sometimes be questioned).
The child who knows he is loved unconditionally, who is aware of his own value as a unique human being despite his mistakes, is usually one who has no need for the temporary ego props of drugs, casual sex encounters, or breaking school rules. Parents who regularly tell their offspring ''We love you, and we're proud of you'' will not be let down very often.
Assuming the best also encourages a positive view of discipline, rather than a critical or hostile approach. Saying impersonally ''Your bedroom is messy - can you do something about it?'' is more pleasant (and more effective) than ''You're such a slob - you just don't care, do you?'' Teens are often defensive because they're unsure of themselves. Rather than aggravate this uncertainty, we can reward decent behavior with warm praise and thanks, and try to keep negative remarks to a minimum.
We also assume the best when we allow teen-adult communication to be a real dialogue, rather than just another parental lecture. By listening seriously to our adolescents, asking their opinions and sometimes sharing our own vulnerability, we are passing on a message: ''I value your ideas. You are a person worth listening to, even if I must sometimes disagree. You are important to me.'' My own teens feel freer about discussing problems or admitting failure when they are treated in this manner. And with lines of communication open, potential trouble can often be spotted and prevented.
When a parent assumes the best, he is also putting difficulties in perspective and keeping small matters small. Many adults tend to overreact to their teens - to treat a loud and annoying stereo, for example, with the same degree of seriousness as such major misdeeds as drunkenness and vandalism. A teen who is constantly punished for minor infractions may be far less able (or willing) to cooperate than one who has developed a more reasonable perspective of right and wrong. Wise parents save their disciplinary energy for serious matters and learn to be unruffled by the aggravating, but harmless, aspects of adolescence. Such an attitude displays tolerance and fairness, and teens are quite likely to respond in the same way.
Adolescence may not be easy for parent or child. But if we assume the best about our offspring - if we make them aware of our confidence and trust - we keep conflict to a minimum. And we give our kids a challenge they simply can't resist.