Similarly, a senior in high school, visibly shaken, came up to me and said, “Father Michael, my mom is really upset with me. We just got our college applications back and although I was admitted into some good colleges, none of the Ivy Leagues accepted me. She said they paid $40,000 a year to send me to the best high school in town, with the main goal of getting me into the Ivy Leagues and that I really let the family down.”
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Another young man who was just finishing at Harvard made this comment while we were having a coffee at Starbucks. “Father Michael, I am currently interning at the White House. I co-wrote two books while at Harvard, and many offers are coming in for me to work on Wall Street after graduation. I have hit all my goals in life, but I am not happy. I am self-absorbed, and I love myself so much I could throw up … There has to be something more than all of this!”
For 19 years I had the privilege of working with kids in the greater Washington, D.C., area, as a chaplain in schools and overseeing nearly 20 youth programs. These three comments reflect the risk of living in a culture that hyper-focuses on success at all costs, while perhaps leaving faith and key family values on the sidelines. I know many other families that are both successful and fulfilled, so it is possible.
Zenit News Agency interviewed me on this topic several years ago, and although the focus is more on raising teenage boys, some of these principles could be applied to girls as well.
Question: What are some particular characteristics of this age group that parents and educators need to bear in mind?
Answer: One of the first and most important points is to recognize that they are no longer kids. Up to age 12, they are still kids. But from 13 onward, puberty kicks in and there is a lot more sensitivity; they are more easily irritated and they want to be treated like a teen, not like a kid. At this age, teenage boys are discovering their identities and going through a lot of turmoil. It’s a very sensitive time, and we need to pray for them and dedicate time to them, show personal interest, try to understand what they’re thinking.
Q: How can a parent find the balance between being clear, firm and yet flexible?
A: Explain to your son in advance: These are the guidelines and these are the consequences. The consequences must be reasonable. Every parent has an atomic bomb he or she can pull out — taking away the Internet, the cellphone, or the driver’s license, or keeping their bedroom door open — but everything needs to be done in a fair way, in due proportion. You can’t surprise a kid with a negative punishment that doesn’t correspond to what he did.
Don’t let the kids feel there is no hope or that they have totally lost your trust. Striking the balance between being firm and cutting some slack is important.
Don’t let the kids feel there is no hope or that they have totally lost your trust. Striking the balance between being firm and cutting some slack is important. Also, it is better to be emotionless and rational when you reprimand them or make a point. Don’t throw salt in the wound by making a punishment into an emotional ordeal. Be brief. In the end, boys respect it more.
Q: How can parents motivate their kids to do the right thing?
A: Don’t explain it so much in terms of “right” and “wrong,” but in terms of “wise” and “wrong.” Explain why something is wrong or right and frame your motivations in a positive way. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t become a drug addict,” help your teen to see how resisting the temptation is a great way to forge his character.
When the issue of premarital sex comes up, flip it around: Instead of saying, “It’s a mortal sin” or “You might get a disease,” help him to look forward to his future wife, and to think of what a great gift he could offer her if he waits for her.
Don’t analyze boys’ emotions. Girls might like to talk about their feelings and emotions, but most boys don’t.
Q: Why should parents avoid probing into their sons’ emotional life?
A: Boys don’t like to be analyzed. Sometimes the worst possible question a parent can ask is: “How are you doing today? How are you feeling?” Don’t analyze their emotions. Girls might like to talk about their feelings and emotions, but most boys don’t. If they had a bad day, they don’t want to talk about it because it makes them feel vulnerable and weak.
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Q: Do teenage boys really feel a lot of pressure to perform up to their parents’ standards?
A: Yes, they do feel a lot of pressure and they are very sensitive when they feel judged by how they perform instead of by who they are. They need the love and esteem of their parents. Parents should put the emphasis on their kids’ characters and on the effort they make, not necessarily on the result that comes out. If a kid is honest, generous, prayerful, trying hard in school, and is still a B student, he’s doing his best, and he should be encouraged. It’s important for parents to have reasonable expectations and to encourage each boy to live up to his potential.
Here we see the importance of a great marriage: If that’s in place, you’ve got a pretty good chance of a teenager getting through high school in good shape.
Q: How important is the good example of the parents?
A: It is extremely important. We all hyperanalyze our parents and observe the example they set in all areas: If they are practicing what they preach, if they are faithful to each other, etc. High school is a very tumultuous, unstable time for boys. If these qualities of fidelity and authenticity are not there, and if there is not a stable, happy marriage, it’s chaos. Troubled kids generally come from dysfunctional or broken families. Here we see the importance of a great marriage: If that’s in place, you’ve got a pretty good chance of a teenager getting through in good shape. There are not too many cases of parents who’ve got it together having dysfunctional kids.
We’re living in a very feminized culture, so dads need to teach their sons what true masculinity is all about.
Q: Can you expand on the importance of the dad’s role in relation to his son?
A: Kids, especially in high school, need to spend time with their dad, doing things together. This time together creates a space for him to open up and talk if he wants to. Take him out to breakfast or out to a game. Look for ways that he would want to do something with you. Dads need to get personally involved with their sons and dedicate time, especially to their more difficult kids.
Making little gestures of kindness is so important. My dad used to stop in every night before going to bed. He showed me he cared by asking how I was doing with my homework, how things were going. It was just a quick gesture but it was very helpful.
High school kids are looking for words of wisdom. Kids are looking for advice from the ones they love.
We’re living in a very feminized culture, so dads need to teach their sons what true masculinity is all about. Being masculine doesn’t mean being a tough football player and lifting weights. Manliness means strong character, self-control, quiet strength, and getting through adversity without whining. Kids need to see this example. You’re the man of the house, you think about things, and you have things under control.
If you’re living an authentic life, it comes across. One time when I was a kid, we got a pretty serious tornado warning while we were out in the yard, cleaning up. My dad went to each one of us: He was calm, in control, and he knew what needed to be done. Once we were all in the basement, he was at peace. He was a calming force, full of confidence and authenticity.
And dads need to be a reliable source of guidance because high school kids are looking for words of wisdom. Kids are looking for advice from the one they love. Dads need to be available, but also offer. Kids shouldn’t be intimidated or afraid to approach their dad for advice.
Q: Why did you list “emotional stability” as the first characteristic for moms of teenage boys?
A: Guys are pretty choleric and easily excitable. They don’t want their mom in their face, exploding, without self-control. It’s very irritating. If a mom is too excitable, anything she says is not going to be well-received because of the emotional charge. In my experience working with kids, I’ve seen that very few have a great relationship with their mom. There’s not always a natural connection. The way of being is so different … and in some cases, moms still treat their teenage sons as if they were little kids.
Moms should deal with their sons in a calm, straightforward way. When guys talk, they get to the point. It’s important for moms to watch what comes across in their tone, in the way they address the kids.
The mom’s role is to be a mentor, a guide, and a leader, but she is not called to be a friend to her son.
Q: Can you expand on how moms can communicate more effectively with their sons?
A: Most teenage boys don’t like engaging in long, philosophical conversations with their moms. It’s generally better for moms not to ask too many questions and to be satisfied with short answers. If moms dig too deeply, kids try to avoid them, because they feel like they’re being prodded. It’s like forcing them to expose their weakness. Boys don’t want to show their emotions.
Moms have to understand that there won’t be a lot of communication, and they need to go about it in a very delicate way, trying to talk about things the kids like to talk about: “Hey, you played a great game last night.”
The mom’s role is to be a mentor, a guide, and a leader, but she is not called to be a friend to her son. Moms, you have to let them go a little bit and do things as a family. It’s more the dad’s role to have one-on-one time and to build that close man-to-man friendship.
Moms can really make a big impact when they give an example of selfless love and service. Kids need to feel loved, served, appreciated, because they are not getting that in their competitive environment.
Q: How do you help teenage boys build character and a strong spiritual life?
A: Character and the spiritual life go hand in hand, because grace builds on nature. It is not possible for a kid to be able to resist his passions of disobedience, rebelliousness, vanity, and lust without the help of God’s grace. I always suggest confession every two weeks or at least once a month. Definitely Sunday Mass, and if they can go more often, I encourage it. I also encourage kids to pray a decade of the rosary for the virtues they struggle most with.
And it’s important for them to learn to live in the presence of Christ, because the motivation of loving Christ and serving Christ is really what is going to help kids overcome the struggles they face. Doing things just because Mom is watching or because they’ll get in trouble is not enough, because once they go to college, those deterrents are no longer there. They need to form convictions of faith in the presence of God.
Seven tips that may be helpful in raising your kids:
• Give clear guidelines with reasonable consequences from a unified front. Cut a little slack but also hold your children accountable for their actions.
• Use reasonable explanations for the criteria, guidelines and decisions made by parents.
• Avoid hyper-analysis of their emotions and states of mind; avoid “taking their temperature” too often.
• Give unconditional love with an emphasis on character and effort more than outcome: Encourage children to live up to their potential while having reasonable expectations.
• Authenticity, faith and fidelity should be reflected in parent’s lifestyles.
• Note these great qualities of a dad: manliness, temperance, making significant time for family, putting aside work to be fully present (this applies to mom who work as well), and being a reliable source of guidance.
• Note these great qualities of a mom: emotional stability, selflessness, loving service and extreme patience.
Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.