Five Mistakes Almost Every Parent Makes With Their Teen

We’re rationing WiFi at our house.

With five students and three adults working from home, our bandwith is precious. Recently, we enforced a ‘no goof-off media until after 6 pm’ rule restricting online games, shows and videos until the evening hours. So, when my husband walked past our son Gabe, and saw him watching ‘The Office’ at 11 am, he wasn’t pleased.

“What are you watching?” he asked, shouting a little so Gabe could hear him through his headphones.

Startled, Gabe pulled out his headphones and explained ‘The Office’ clips were part of his AP Psychology lesson for the day. He wasn’t on YouTube or Netflix, rather he was firmly settled in Canvas watching his assigned lesson.

Happily, this small conflict was easily resolved, but with everyone at home all day, in each other’s space, it’s easy to make assumptions, speak harshly and overcorrect. We’ve had arguments over someone taking too many meatballs at dinnertime, cheating in backyard games, and even putting puzzle pieces in the wrong way. There’s a general stress in the air. Even for those not concerned with falling ill, the uncertainty of our current life puts people on edge.

The world has been turned upside down for everyone. As parents we can use this time as an extraordinary opportunity to build our relationships by increasing the love and communication in our family, or we can add to our children’s stress. Your children will always remember the year of the pandemic. In many ways, their ability to handle uncertainty, adversity and to act as good citizens of the world will be formed by the example we set as parents right now.

Perfect parenting doesn’t exist. Still, if you can learn to recognize and reduce these five common parenting mistakes you can model excellent communication for your kids and teens.

  1. Not listening. Too often, parents fail to give kids time to explain. Talking through events and emotions helps kids process their feelings and often helps them find their own solutions. Let your teens talk and avoid interrupting, lecturing or giving orders. Listen with your mouth closed, “Hmmm.” “Uh huh.” “Mmmm.” Discipline yourself to stay quiet while your teens are talking and they will be much more willing to listen to you.
  2. Expecting too much. Nearly every parent expects too much. We want our children to excel and we want to direct them on the path to success. Make sure your teens know they are loved. Talk with your child about their own goals and offer support, not pressure. Also, keep in mind that almost no one is accomplishing as much as they’d like during this pandemic.
  3. Overcorrecting and criticizing. Parents are responsible for teaching and correcting their children, but it’s easy to fall into a pattern of nearly constant criticism. Before correcting your child, ask yourself, “Is this necessary and needful?” If it is, then speak up. I’ve found when I ask myself this question, 90% of the time I don’t need to say a word. My children know my expectations, they do not need constant reminders.
  4. Demanding respect but not giving it. When parents yell or belittle their children, they are acting like toddlers who didn’t get the lollipop they wanted. If you want your children’s respect, speak calmly, act calmly. You are responsible for your own emotions and actions. Be the adult.
  5. Taking themselves too seriously. Laughter is the best medicine, especially for families. Laugh at your mistakes, laugh at the absurdities of life, take time to plan fun activities and make family dinners and family meetings a place of cheerful conversation. Let your kids experiment with humor but guide them away from excessive teasing and hurtful stories. When you lose at a game or mispronounce a word, laugh at yourself. Modeling good humor and humility furnishes your children with valuable life skills.

Our children need us more than ever. No one knows how long the Covid-19 crisis will last. So much is being stripped away and revealing what matters.

At our house, we have more time to talk to each other, to play games and sing out loud while piecing together jigsaw puzzles. We’re also having some fierce debates, spilled milk and stinging words. In the rush of normal life, we might’ve brushed over those hurts, but we’re taking the time to talk, to truly understand each other. We still have plenty to work on but I know as a family we will come out of this with better stronger, happier relationships. And I know we’re going to need each other for whatever comes next.

Raising Real Men: Kindness Isn’t For the Weak

Every time I’m asked for parenting advice, I feel hesitant. Children, families, relationships are all so unique– every family, every child has different needs. Most often I advise, “Pray. Follow your own instincts.”

I still believe prayer and meditation is the best advice, but I also know we get confused by the many voices in society offering conflicting information. I’ll say this– I believe 90% of parental mistakes come from parents (not kids) giving in to peer pressure. Trying to fit in.

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The desire to be “normal” or at least fit in to some social parameter, plagues all of us. And to some extent these desires are healthy, they keep us from stealing cars and yelling at the slow person in front of us at the grocery store. But the drive to wear the right clothes, see the same movies, play the cool sports, stifles individuals.

I’ll be clear. If you want to raise kind, smart, creative boys (and girls) prepare to be very different. If you’re raising sons, I don’t need to show you the research detailing the toxic environment modern society offers boys. Over and over, people told me I was turning my boys into sissies and nerds by choosing violin lessons and reading too many books. I ignored the nay-sayers because for me, popularity was never the goal. Ironically, my boys are extremely well-liked and popular among their peers.

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I’ll share a secret, and it’s a big one.

I believe my children are amazing.

And I believe your children are amazing.

The essence of my mothering resides in these words from C.S. Lewis (my favorite quote ever, ever):

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

Viewing my children as beings with limitless potential has helped me many many times to sift through bad advice and temporary fads. I have no aspirations for my sons to hold titles or prestige, but I do want them to be good moral men who spread light and joy where’er they may go.

The middle, oft neglected, part of the above quote:

“It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”

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Viewing my children as beings with limitless potential has helped me many, many times to sift through bad advice and temporary fads. I have no aspirations for my sons to hold titles or prestige, but I do want them to be good moral men who spread light and joy where’er they may go.

In the same vein, we try to treat everyone as God’s children. I’m the first to admit we haven’t been wholly successful. Cruel remarks echo through our house far too often. But we don’t accept unkindness as acceptable behavior. My boys learned young they’d better not make jokes about someone’s weight or race or education. We laugh almost constantly, but at life’s absurdities, not at other people.

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When the boys were tiny and friends warned us we would make them soft, my husband Erik replied, “I’m comfortable with my own masculinity.” Through example, he shows diapering babies, reading Jane Austen, folding laundry and holding up your pinky at tea parties are for real men. Why the desire for “toughness” anyway? Hardness and insensitivity corrupt us all to some degree; we don’t need to cultivate those tendencies.

Too often, the phrase “boys will be boys” excuses bad behavior. Yes, mothers of boys need to understand boys will make enormous messes, turn any stick into a sword or gun and forget to use shampoo and toothpaste. But we don’t have to accept fighting, objectifying women, crude words or behavior.

My friend Catherine has three older girls and twin boys who just turned four. “They’ve starting hitting each other and everyone,” she said, “how do I get them to stop?”

“Work on it every single day for the next fifteen years.” I answered with only the very slightest tinge of sarcasm.

And it’s true. Just recently, my 21 year old learned how to hold wrestling matches without anyone crying or needing stitches. Boys hit. They just do. But it’s our job as parents to help them control their temper.

I am not a fan of the “let them fight it out” mentality. My husband and I both saw examples of brothers who fought as children and caused lifelong resentment. Also, learning to control the desire to hit or lash out will be invaluable as husbands and fathers.

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Preparing for fatherhood begins in childhood. Place babies in your boys’ arms at any opportunity. Cultivate a love for animals. Encourage your boys to play with and help younger children. Teach them to treat girls and women of all ages with respect.

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Crude jokes– especially anything objectifying women–have no place among real men. Neither does crude behavior.

When someone burps they say “excuse me.” Old fashioned? Yes. But good manners never go out of style. I believe the old ways are the best ways– opening doors, shoveling sidewalks, giving up your seat on the bus for old (or young) ladies.

Our sons should be “acquainted with grief.” This subject requires prayerful insight from parents, but I believe it is essential our children understand the heartaches and struggles in their own home, their neighborhood and the world. For some, it’s easier to talk about starving children in Africa than the fact daddy just lost his job. But our children gain compassion and perspective when they know life isn’t easy for anyone. As Plato famously advised, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”


Finally, maintaining a sense of whimsy lends to kindness. As Gabe loves to say, “My life would be so boring if my parents weren’t so immature.” I’ll confess to all kinds of immaturity. But I think it would be a shame to outgrow or be “too cool” to make Valentine’s, drive through mud puddles, talk in silly voices, watch Toy Story and hold water fights in the back yard.

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Happiness and kindness walk hand in hand. The more I encourage laughter at home the happier we become.

And we are, as I love to repeat, made for happiness.

Losing My Temper: One Mom Confesses All

The summer after my fourth child was born, I was completely overwhelmed. With three little boys racing through the house, one little needy baby in my arms and my husband traveling nearly every week, I was a frazzled wreck. And I got into the habit of yelling. Too much. Too often. Out of control.

Even as a little girl, I knew I had a fiery temper. I remember watching the extraordinarily sweet singing leader at church and knowing I had a different set of DNA. Sweetness did not come easily to me. Courage and smarts, yes. But not sweetness. I envied and emulated my mild-tempered friends. My teachers taught kindness and I listened and did my best.

My best was enough for a long time. Until that summer.

Friday night: my husband gone on business, baby Xander crying and dinner on the stove. I was shucking corn in the kitchen, watching the boys on the back porch, while using my toe to bounce Xander’s little baby seat. My arms were full of corn to rinse in the sink when the boys began banging on the glass kitchen door. The door wasn’t locked, but their arms were full (of what? I forgot) as were mine. As their pounding increased, I feared the door would break and in a burst of anger I yelled and threw the corn on the counter. Hard. Seven or eight ears.

Do you know what fresh corn does when you slam it against a hard surface? You probably don’t because you’ve never lost it like I did that night. It explodes. The same force you see when kernels pop over heat, but wet and slimy and all over my kitchen.

Every surface was covered with sticky yellow bits of corn — counter, walls, stovetop, oven, floor, my arms and clothing, even poor baby Xander’s chubby tear-stained cheeks. I stared in horror at what I’d done, began to cry and called my best friend.

For hours we scrubbed the kitchen. Cornstarch serves as a substitute for glue in all kinds of fun crafts — and all that smashed corn was glued to my kitchen. We gave the kids cereal for dinner, laughed and cried and scrubbed and finally gave up, deciding I’d just have to tackle the job a bit at a time.

As I lay in bed that night, exhausted, one thought kept returning to my mind. The moment of decision. Because I can recall, even now, the moment when I had control. But I gave in to anger, threw the corn and created all kinds of work (and mortification) for myself.

I knew I had a problem. But I cried and justified and muddled through until school started in August and I went in the first week for an introductory meeting with my oldest child’s second-grade teacher. The kids had filled out a little “get to know me” page with their favorite foods, movies, books and questions such as “What makes you happy?” and “What makes you sad?”

Under the question “What scares you?” Ben had scribbled, “When my mom yells.”

That night I knelt beside my bed, pulled that crumpled paper out of my pocket and begged God for help. I wanted to be kinder, calmer and less scary. At the moment of decision, I wanted to make the right choice, not the angry one. I was deeply shamed.

Change takes time. I broke my resolve more times than I can count. But I kept praying, practicing calmness and kindness. And I changed.

My two youngest children will tell you I never yell. Not even when the water bottle spills across the kitchen counter — and ruins my laptop — or when my daughter and friends pulled all the petals off the rose bushes for a fairy dance.

Oh, they’re wrong. I still yell here and there, especially when I think someone is in danger, but not often enough to remember or loud enough to scare them. I now consider myself extraordinarily patient; it takes a whole lot to ruffle my feathers.

Please understand: I share this not to brag but to encourage. We can change. We can turn our weaknesses into strengths. We are not victims of our DNA or personality type. I often hear people say things like, “She never said an unkind word in her life,” or “She never complained,” or “He always had a positive attitude.” If I’m feeling grumpy, I think, “Well, I’ve already blown that.” I need to hear stories about people who struggled, yet improved.

Maybe, for someone out there, it will be more encouraging to hear, “She was a stressed-out, angry yelling mom but she changed and got better and much happier.”

Because we are made for happiness.

As for Ben — what scares him now? Spiders. Big, fat spiders.

He’ll have to get over that on his own.

How to Ruin Your Relationship With Your Teenager


One evening my sons came home with the same exclamation, “It’s amazing how many kids hate their parents!” We talked for an hour or so about why, and I’ve interviewed several teenagers over the last few months for further clarity.

The good news: most teenagers are very forgiving of parental missteps; they recognize their own faults and readily forgive others’. Even better, in a healthy relationship, teenagers love you for who you are. Yes, they might act embarrassed when you hug them in front of their friends or even drop them off in front of the high school. But they really don’t care if you’re overweight, frumpy or wear outdated clothes.

Even the best of us will recognize our own failings in the following list, but look at it as an opportunity to improve rather than berate yourself. All relationships take work, but your communications with your teenager can be lifesaving. The largest problems can be solved when you have a good relationship, but even the smallest problems can cause disaster when your interactions are filled with tension

1. Not Listening

Years ago, I heard invaluable advice: “Once your child reaches the age of 13 or 14 they know your opinion of everything under the sun. Your job from now on is to shut up and listen.” I remember feeling a bit defensive the first time I heard this counsel. I had so much knowledge yet to share! And besides, things change—how would I offer my wisdom on future problems? But there’s the crux of it all. Things change. As adults, we think we know all about the teenage world, but our swiftly moving planet has spun beyond our intimate knowledge of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. And here’s what I’ve learned: when you take the time to listen, truly listen, your kids will ask your opinion.

2. Criticizing Excessively

I think we all know the evils of fault-finding, but in parenting, criticism (to some degree) is a necessary evil. Parent to child is one of the very few relationships where you do need to offer correction. It’s our job to teach kids to comb their hair, take out the garbage, do their homework, etc. Censure should be given kindly and sparingly. No one can handle a barrage of disapproval; especially teenagers. And remember, kids are criticized all day by teachers and peers; home should be a haven of acceptance and love (as well as occasional reminders to trim their fingernails).

3. Grilling Them With Questions

Perhaps this complaint sounds contradictory to the first. How can a parent listen without asking questions? But I think we all know there’s an enormous difference between asking and listening. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? Don’t you hate it when someone peppers you with questions without even waiting for your answers? Sure, ask one or two questions, but then just sit back and listen. Allow for pauses in the conversation.

When teaching, I like to get a great discussion going in the classroom. I’ve learned to ask a question and then wait. As the moments tick by, I lean on the podium and say, “It’s OK. I can wait.” Without fail, I learn the most from my class when I’m willing to let the room grow silent. It’s the same when talking to kids. When the conversation lulls, simply say, “I’m listening.” That pause, the permission to gather their thoughts, implies safety and leads to real conversation.

4. Telling Embarrassing Stories or Complain About Them Publicly

I can scarcely go to any social gathering or social media without hearing someone trash talk their kids. They act like it’s normal to talk about how their kids have ruined their lives. More often than not, their child is listening to this barrage of insults. Can you imagine standing in the corner of a room hearing your parents talk about how terrible you are? People act the way we treat them, and if parents handle kids like they are rotten, they either will be, or they will cut their parents out of their lives. As one boy told Hans, “My parents’ house is just a place to sleep; why would I want to be in a place where everything I do is wrong?”

5. Stereotyping Their Behavior

“Teenagers are all crazy/selfish/irresponsible/lazy.” Somehow, it’s socially acceptable to belittle teenagers. Yes, there’s that whole brain development thing going on, but most of the teenagers I know are doing an incredible job at managing complicated lives. I see kids putting in hundreds of hours in service, playing instruments, creating computer apps, juggling AP classes, playing sports, performing in plays and dance…all while working a part-time job, nurturing their sibling and doing the dishes at night. So maybe we should cut them a little slack when they forget the dishes?

6. Fighting the Wrong Battles

We all know the stereotypical story of making a kid sit at the dinner table until they’ve finished their broccoli. Parents need to ask themselves before making a stand, “Is it worth it?” Teenagers are facing so many big issues, their choice of vegetable really doesn’t matter. In fact, most battles don’t matter. If kids are given the freedom to choose in many areas of their life, they will be much more likely to listen to parents’ opinions on the big issues. Whenever I write about media, I get all kinds of accusations about my crazy strict parenting. But if you ask my kids, they’ll tell you I’m an extremely lenient parent. As Hans says, “We don’t have many rules.” In truth, our rules are based on guiding principles and we let other things slide.

7. Expecting Instant Compliance

Too often, parents expect kids to jump up and comply with their requests in a way they’d never demand of their spouse or themselves. It takes a minute to wrap up what you’re doing and empty the garbage/put your shoes away/bring in the groceries. Unless there’s a fire, let’s give kids the same respect for their time we’d want for our own.

8. Maintaining Constant Suspicion

When we expect the worst of people, they usually comply. Yes, parents should be cautious and careful; we should all know the signs of depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity etc. But if parents create an environment of rigid rules, suspicion and distrust, kids are drawn to dangerous behaviors. Parents can keep safeguards in place without destroying relationships. At my house, we keep our two computers password protected and my kids know I regularly check the history. It’s not that I don’t trust my kids, it’s simply that I know pornography is readily available and especially tempting when kids are tired, lonely or bored. It’s like keeping guns in a cabinet—the lock exists to protect innocents who might be curious about something that could destroy their lives.

9. Being Stingy With Your Apologies

It seems that some parents are a little like 3-year-olds and believe an honest, sincere, “I’m sorry” will cost them money, pride or status. Every time you yell at your kids or unjustifiably punish them, you’re placing a brick in a wall between you. Remorse and forgiveness can remove those bricks, but if you let them pile up, you’ll build a hard wall between yourself and your teen. Every parent messes up, but we should apologize easily and often. Our kids benefit from our example when we show remorse for our wrongs and try to do better. In turn, teenagers will learn to apologize quickly and forgive easily—both positive habits for a happy life.

10. Making Them Feel Less Important Than Your Phone/Car/Friends/Golf Clubs, etc.

My teenagers hate, hate, HATE when I talk on the phone while driving with them. Even if they aren’t in the mood to chat, they don’t like to be treated like a bag of groceries on the seat next to me. Sometimes, I need to take the call, but I find my kids are happier if I keep it short and offer an apology. I don’t spend nearly as many hours with my teenagers as I did when they were little, and I need to have a listening ear when we are together. It’s not that teens need to be treated like they are the center of the universe—they just need to know they matter to you. And if they do accidentally scratch the paint on your car or dent a golf club, they need to know they are more important than any object. When kids feel valued, they value their relationship with you.

11. Nitpicking Their Appearance

We all know teenagers are sensitive about their appearance, but somehow we can’t help pouring on our advice, critiques and opinions. At 11 or 12, boys really do need reminders to shower, comb their hair and wear deodorant, but by 13 or so, both boys and girls know most basic grooming. Anything from here on out should be gentle reminders, not nagging. It helps to set a family standard—everyone showers, does their laundry, brushes their teeth, eats their vegetables, gets some form of exercise each day etc.—rather than making it personal. Parents should help—provide acne medicine, healthy food, opportunities to exercise, help with buying clothing, etc.—but persistent fault finding only hurts relationships.

12. Comparing Kids With Each Other

Ugh. Another behavior we know we should avoid, but somehow almost every parent at some point falls prey to the temptation of comparing a child to their siblings, the neighbors, a cousin or acquaintance. For me, the best way to avoid this behavior is thinking of how I’d feel if my husband compared me to my sister, my neighbors, an acquaintance…

13. Expecting Prowess at Sports, Dance, Music

I’ll never forget sitting at one of my son’s baseball games and watching a father scream and yell at his son for striking out. Over the years, at various sports games, music recitals, and dance tryouts, I’ve seen dozens of parents who scold and belittle their child for not performing up to standard.

I’ll also never forget my friend Judy Wolfe addressing the children in the audience at her son’s funeral: “I’m going to tell you one of your parents’ great secrets. You know all the fuss they make about your grades and making the team and getting awards?” Her eyes swept through the room as she noted the many children and teenagers filling the chapel.

“This competition, this drive to measure up: It’s all a show. Your parents are in love with you anyway. From the moment you were born they adored you — all you had to do was show up.”

If you’ve read this far, you’re a parent who loves your children and works hard to create a joyful family. I believe every one of us possesses more good sense and intuition about our children than a dozen parenting books. More than anything else, we just have to remember teenagers are still learning. We are all still learning. And we need to offer each other patience, forgiveness and the ability to laugh it off.

Even as I write this, I can see holes in the list, hear arguments from detractors. Just because I try hard not to expect too much, doesn’t mean I don’t expect a lot from my kids. I expect good grades, washed dishes, clean language; I expect my kids to hike six miles, practice instruments, weed the flower beds, read books, help the neighbors, befriend the lonely, and be kind. There’s an old but persistent fallacy about parents always maintaining the upper hand, but creating happy, loving, open relationships with our children holds far more power than any form of discipline. Teenagers who are armed with solid values and loved as individuals will thrive even in the harshest climates.

The best reason to cultivate happy relationships? Teenagers are so much fun. They fill the house with music and laughter, interesting conversations, pranks, and spontaneous activities. And if you’re lucky, they’ll invite over more teenagers to share stories and food and dreams and more laughter. I have no fear for the future. The teenagers I know are bright and spunky, full of ideas and unexpected kindnesses. I’m just glad they’ll talk to me; I’m always happy to listen.

I have so much faith in you. I have so much faith in your teens. You’ve got this.