'How important is it?' helps keep child-rearing in perspective

Years ago, my eldest child's kindergarten teacher mentioned that she was the mother of five teen-agers. I stared at her in amazement. After all I'd heard about the "terrible teen" syndrome, how could this woman be so cheerful -- and coherent?

She guessed my thoughts. "You'll find out someday that teens can be delightful," she assured me. "After all, they're people too!"

I have four teen-agers now, and this teacher's wise words have often come back to me. Our kids arem delightful -- their wit, commentary, and nonstop activities enliven a household long preoccupied with pablum and potty chairs. Despite staggering grocery bills, disheveled blue jeans, and endless telephone conversations, my husband and I are starting to glimpse the meaning of "fruition ," the time when all our labor and love come together in offspring of whom we can be justifiably proud.

And yet we agree that raising teens can be a challenge. Our kids are no longer adoring moppets, convinced of our superiority in all matters. Nor are they yet adults, able to make consistently mature decisions. Worse, our foursome lives in a culture that has changed radically in the past decade or two , with few universally accepted guidelines left to sustain them.

Struggling to cope, a teen can sometimes find the challenge overwhelming. Frustration is taken out on parents who react with harsh directives, and the stage is set for hard feelings and loss of communication -- at a time when it is most needed.

And so my husband and I have developed a motto which we quote to each other during particularly difficult moments and which forces us to keep actions and responses in perspective, defuse potential explosions, and preserve communication. Our motto -- one that could apply during any stage of child-rearing -- is simple: "How important is it?"

"How important is it?" helps us to focus on our long-range goals, the ways we contribute to building our children's character. To us, matters involving personal morality and honesty, drugs and drinking, respect for people and property, are verym important, and call for prompt attention and firm, easily understood guidelines. Our teens may possibly disobey us in these areas, but they also realize that their actions will have major parental repercussions.

On the other hand, will it really matter 10 years from now if the 15-year-old occasionally stays up too late, mumbles, or forgets to take out the garbage? Asking, "How important is it?" helps me avoid pointless turmoil or too much energy expended on less important principles at a cost of diminished effort on the absolute musts.

Take the matter of curfews. Many parents insist on a firm time for their teens' return from party or date; if kids are even a few moments late, they are punished. A high-schooler naturally resents this treatment (especially if there were extenuating circumstances) and may rebel at the next opportunity. This pushes parents toward stricter retaliation, and another battle is on.

However, when a parent examines curfew rules from a "How important is it?" perspective, she often finds that it is the kids' outside behavior, and perhaps the social situation, which concerns her, and not the few moments' leeway at evening's end. Using this insight, she can then focus on the important issues -- plans for the evening, correct behavior -- and allow her teens some say in determining a reasonable curfew. If high-schoolers retain some control over these aspects of their lives, they will often live up to the trust placed in them.

"How important?" can apply to more routine behavior, too, everything from condemned-by-the-board-of-health bedrooms and stereos at top decibel to the child who cannot be roused for school unless Mother tap-dances on his chest. My husband and I have finally learned to ignore most of these temporary annoyances. Because we realize that our teens arem people, we understand that they are susceptible to the same pressures, failings, and mistakes as the rest of the human race. Our job is not to make their lives more difficult by constant nagging and endless rules, but to help them determine their own priorities in an atmosphere of love and acceptance.

Parents will vary, of course, in the specific ideals and behavior they wish to promote. But asking, "How important is it?" can clear the air in any household, keep everyone relaxed, and redefine the go als we are all striving to reach.

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