Teaching Your Teenager to be a Critical Thinker

The day The Boy got his driver’s license he asked me if he could use my vehicle to drive to a friend’s house about 7 kilometres out of town. I said no problem. He seriously aced his driving exam that afternoon and the impressed instructor had even taken me aside to ask who had done so much practice driving with him (me!).

The Boy called me close to 11pm to ask if he could stay the night at his friend’s place because some other teens were there and alcohol had come out. The un-stated rationalization here was that he would not drink and drive (it didn’t need to be talked about during this particular conversation because we talk about it so often). I did not reply to his question. Instead I said, “Let’s see… you have taken the car out for the very first time on your own, and you want to drink tonight and also stay out all night.” For starters, I wanted to simply re-state the facts as I understood them for two reasons:

  1. To check if they were correct. Was this actually what was going on?
  2. I wanted my son to hear this list of facts out loud. Many times the actual words have a lot of power when we hear them, rather than just think about them in our minds. Have you ever had it happen where you think to yourself, ‘I haven’t had a sit-down meal with my kid all week,’ and it’s no big deal, but then you say the same thing out loud to your friend and you think, ‘I’m kind of a crappy parent…’

The Boy agreed that these were the facts. So then I asked him, “Do you think that might be too much for your first time driving on your own?” I wanted to challenge him to reach for his own best thinking, because humans don’t learn to think critically by having others make tough decisions for us; we learn how to think critically by actively making our own tough decisions.

I will write in another post about my views on teens and alcohol use, so don’t worry – I’m not just going to leave that part hanging unaddressed! But for now, dear reader, just know that this wouldn’t be the first time The Boy was planning to drink.

Many of us can be scared to let our teens take full charge of making tough decisions themselves. We worry that their inexperience and still-developing brains and thrill-seeking natures will take them in dangerous directions. We try to convince ourselves that if we take the potentially treacherous activities off the table then our kids will be safe. But we all know that this comes with the cost of conflict; every time we tell our teen, ‘no, you can’t do that’ or ‘no, you can’t go there’ we probably have a fight on our hands.

Also, it takes practice to allow teens to make tough decisions themselves. When they were little, we were able to make almost every decision for them except what they would eat, how much, if they would pee or poo, and if they would sleep or wake. The whole parenting trip starts with us having all the responsibility, and we get so used to having it that we have a hard time letting go of it. We need to start with little things like letting them decide to climb to the top of the play structure, then letting them decide how far they want to swim into the lake.

The Boy thought out loud with me over the phone, explaining what a good time they were having at Alex’s house and who was all there and what he thought they might do for the rest of the night and where everyone would sleep. He told me that he felt confident about being able to drive the vehicle home safely and soberly the next morning because I had an appointment at the garage to get my winter tires mounted. I gave him my good listening attention while he spoke. As a parent who is interested in guiding my son to be a critical thinker, IT IS MY JOB TO LISTEN as he thinks out loud.

I know Alex and his parents, and I also know the other teens that were at the house, so what The Boy was saying made sense to me and didn’t sound outlandish or made-up. I asked what kind of booze they had, and where they got if from, and I asked The Boy how much he was planning to drink. After he answered my questions I told him, “I appreciate you phoning to check with me about this decision. I’m happy that we can think about this together. I can tell that your priorities are having fun with your friends and celebrating your new driver’s license and honouring the fact that you are driving a vehicle that I own and pay for. These are all good things.”

Then I said, “Since we have gone over this together, what do you think is the course of action that makes the most sense?”

After a short pause he said, “I think I want to have a drink or two with my friends. So I will stay here for the night and come home in the morning.” I told him again that I appreciated his call and the opportunity for us to think together, and told him I loved him and that I would see him in the morning.

After I hung up the phone I sat back and felt disappointed. I was hoping The Boy would think having the car out all night while drinking on his very first day with a driver’s license was too much. There was a little voice in my head that said, “I lost that one. Damn.” So I went over the situation again in my mind. Was The Boy safe? Yes, I felt confident of that. Was I worried about my vehicle? No, I really wasn’t. Did it bother me that he was drinking with his friends? No, that wasn’t a problem for me. It was all just a big step to take, and I was processing the fact that my son could now legally drive. It actually made me pretty nervous! I knew I had to work through my fears around having a teen with his driver’s license.

I reminded myself if I had told The Boy, “you really should come home tonight,” that it would only have given him something to fight against. It would have put us in a conflict dynamic where we held opposing positions. I am not interested in making him do what I think is the most rational thing because a) I can’t actually make him do a damn thing! I am not able to physically control him! and b) I am not helping him learn to think critically if I require that he follow my thinking.

About 10 minutes later I was getting ready for bed, lost in thought about my baby growing up, and the phone rang again. It was The Boy calling to tell me he changed his mind about drinking and staying the night, and that he would be home in a few minutes.

Wow! I was so pleased about what I had done to contribute to this outcome! The careful way I worded my thoughts during our earlier conversation allowed The Boy to change his mind without ‘losing face’. He could feel like he had made his own independent decision. Many times teens can only feel independent when they are opposing us, and they need to feel independent in order to grow up.




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What If I Don’t Like Parenting My Teenager?

On the weekend my son and I were booting up at the ski hill, getting ready to go for a few runs, and we were talking about our Easter Dinner plans for the following evening. The Boy is going to his dad’s house for a big potluck meal with family and friends, and I am going to my boyfriend’s house where I know I will be the main attraction for his niece and nephew. The Boy said, “I think it’s weird that you have such a passion for young people. I mean, regular people have a passion for their art or their sport or decorating or something. You are super focused on kids and teenagers. I have never seen anyone else like you.”

I can see his point. I am a bit unique. But I know I am not alone. The Boy has less experience in this lifetime than I do, so he has not had the opportunity to meet some of the hyper dedicated folks I have. I can think of teachers and youth pastors and others who serve kids like it is their calling, the reason they were put on this earth. Like the dude in the TED talk I watched last week who said, “The two most powerful days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you discover why.”

I know that serving young people and their parents is the work I am meant to do. For me it is profoundly connected to my sense of justice ; I want to see a world where all people can have their needs met, no matter what age they are.

But really, what do you care? You are not here to read my views on the needs of children. You are here because you want some inspiration and information to help you have a better parenting experience with your teenager. And that’s fine! I don’t care if your passion is for nursing or office administration or ecology instead of the youth in your community.

But it makes me really sad when I hear about parents who don’t even have a passion for their own children.

One teenage girl I have mentored for a number of years, we will call her Monica, has struggled for ages in her relationship with her parents. Currently she is living away from the family home, but she doesn’t have a job or any money and she is couch surfing with friends. The story I hear from Monica (only her perspective) is that her parents are upset and angry that she can’t find a job and they don’t like her just hanging around the house watching TV. And sometimes smoking pot. Monica says that she prefers to live precariously rather than having to field her parents’ disappointment and criticism.

When Monica and I talk about her situation she cries and tells me she feels lost and unsupported. She wishes that her parents would pay for her to go to the college she wants to study in the field she has chosen (filmmaking). She has told me she wishes she could live with me because I actually seem to like teenagers.

I know for sure that Monica’s parents love her deeply, but what’s important about this story is that Monica doesn’t feel their love. It doesn’t matter one bit if we love our offspring to the moon and back if they can’t tell.

And then there is my good friend Carol who tells me about the group of affluent, sporty couples they socialize with who like to go on hiking adventures in Europe. Carol and her husband would rather do family travel with their two teenage daughters, yet their friends are relentless with the narrative about how all their teens are ‘just fine’ and ‘love to have the house to themselves’. Carol and I wondered out loud over the weekend, “why do these people have children if they don’t enjoy being with them?”

We all have feelings sometimes like we don’t like this whole parenting trip, and we even fight with feelings of not liking our kids. Please don’t think you are the only person in the world who has these struggles. It’s not actually a lack of ‘passion’ for our teenagers that is the problem; however, the difficulties tend to stem from 4 sources:

  1. We feel incredibly burnt out. This situation is extremely difficult to address when we aren’t consciously aware of it. Many times we are burned almost to a crisp before we think, ‘I might be getting a little burned out…’ Our first clues can be fleeting and/or repeating thoughts like, ‘It’s all too much,’ or ‘Life it too big of a stressful juggle,’ or ‘I am completely exhausted.’
  2. We feel incredibly discouraged. Again, we are almost powerless to correct this situation when we aren’t consciously aware of how we feel. Many parents won’t let themselves notice the depths of their discouragement because they are afraid of feeling that bad, and afraid that if they feel the profound discouragement they will get lost in the black hole of it all. We push on, bravely ignoring our despair, making the household function. And we sacrifice ourselves a little bit in the process. Here is how it might sound in your mind: ‘Parenting is f*cking difficult!’ or ‘I have tried everything with this kid!’ or ‘It doesn’t make a difference what approach I take with my teen.’ or ‘This job is way too hard.’ Or simply ‘I am sinking…’
  3. We are parenting the way we were parented. This means that part of us is just going through the motions. It’s like parenting on auto-pilot. We tell ourselves that we turned out okay, so if we do this parenting teens gig the way it was done to us, it probably won’t be a failure. Yet we might not necessarily be parenting in a way that our teenager needs to be parented. We need to regularly ask ourselves: Who is my teen? How is s/he different from me? What does s/he really need or want? What is important to this person as an individual separate from me and the rest of the family? What developmental stages is s/he working on right now?
  4. Our parents had some fatalistic ideas/feelings while raising us. It’s not our fault, but we absorbed the attitudes of our folks, and now they are part of us and they seep into the parenting we do today. This is simply how learning happens; people learn dumb, useless things all the time without their consent. These fatalistic ideas sound like: That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Teens will be teens, there’s nothing we can do about it. Kids were way better behaved in my day. Our parents might have had an unconscious attitude that parenting is a difficult endeavour and you just brace yourself until it’s over and you can enjoy your grandkids instead.

There is no simple cure for the heartache of not liking our teenager or not liking parenting. These situations are obviously complex. But every relationship we have with another human, even our child, is a spiritual mission whether we choose to accept it or not.

Our first steps out of the confusion will involve awareness and acceptance. We can’t change parenting on auto-pilot or feelings of discouragement and exhaustion and overwhelm if we can’t tell they are happening. We have to be able to notice our feelings and notice the reality of the situation before we have any power to act.

Talk to your private journal. Talk to yourself in moments of self-reflection. Talk to a trusted friend. Talk to a therapist. You could even talk to me in the comments below. I would love it if you did.




Posted in Feelings, Parenting | 1 Comment

Arguing With Teens – Computer Time

A dad I know has an ongoing conflict with his thirteen-year old son ‘Joey’ about the teen’s online gaming. Joey craves time on the computer to play the game he loves, and his dad limits Joey’s computer times so that his teenager can also get his homework done and go to sleep at night. Joey has been lying and sneaking around in order to get time on the computer, and recently the teenager went so far as to creep into their garage in the middle of the night while the whole household was asleep so that he could play on his dad’s laptop inside his parents’ car where nobody would hear him.

This parent felt hurt and angry and he wants the disobedience and the lying to stop. Can you blame him? Many of us have been in similar situations with our teenagers; we think the boundaries we are setting are helpful and reasonable, yet our stubborn kids can’t seem to comply. Why is it so hard to just get along?

If I was going to mediate this conflict between the father and the son, the first thing I would do is get them each to take as much time as needed to explain to the other what was important. For example, I would ask the teenager, “Could you please tell your dad what is important to you about having time on the computer?” Then once the kid had a chance to fully express himself it would be the dad’s turn and I would say to him, “could you please tell Joey about your concerns with the computer gaming?”

Now, I’m totally guessing on this one because I have not actually mediated this particular conflict, but from my experience here are some things the teen would probably say:

  • It’s really fun to keep going up level after level and improving my skill and getting deeper into the game.
  • When I play the game I get to be totally in charge of what I want to do and how I’m going to do it. Nobody tells me where to go or what to do; I get to make all the decisions myself.
  • I feel good about myself when I’m playing the game. I don’t have to share with my sister or make the teacher happy. It’s all about me.

And here are my guesses about what might be going on for the dad:

  • For me it’s really important that Joey does well in school and that means completing homework and being rested and ready to learn in the morning.
  • Success in school is essential because I want Joey to have choices when he is older. If he has good marks when he graduates from high school that means he will have lots of options about what he could study in college and what schools he could get into.
  • I am worried that Joey is becoming addicted to gaming and that all the indoor sitting around will mean he doesn’t spend enough time outside or playing sports or interacting with his friends. That can’t be healthy.

You don’t need a mediator to have this kind of conversation. It sounds really simple and rational to take turns communicating and listen to the perspective of the other person. Should be easy, right? But we who have been there know that it can seem impossible to stop the voices in our head that say, “The kid needs to learn that enough is enough! He is lucky I even let him use the computer at all. With all this lying I should just take the damn thing away and he’ll have to get a job and buy his own computer!

Taking the time to actually listen to what the other person has to say about the ‘problem’ can be transformative for the relationship all on its own. If that is the only thing you do, if taking the time to actually listen is the one tool you have in your box, you are already WAY ahead of most parents and you should give yourself a round of applause.

Too often I see parents and teenagers in a bad habit of arguing where they are each pushing their point of view HARD at the other person, but both of them are on the offensive and neither one is actually receiving the communication coming at them. By slowing the communication way. down. then both people have a chance to say what is on their mind and be fully heard.


  1. You are the adult in this relationship. Keep working on acting like one. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying it has to happen today. Remind yourself: “I need to figure out how to be the more thoughtful and patient person here. I am the leader in this relationship. My son is looking to me for support and guidance, not indignation and righteousness.”
  2. If you aren’t ready to act like an adult, remove yourself from the situation. It’s okay to not be ready to have another difficult conversation with your teenager. You are merely human! You might want to sleep on it first, or blow off some steam with exercise, or talk with a friend about what’s happening. Take care of yourself and spend some time reflecting; it will help.
  3. YOU will have to listen first. If you demand that your teen listen to your point of view first, you are just reinforcing the same old argument. You need to demonstrate that this conversation will be different; you are the adult and the leader. Model good listening to your teen by giving him lots of time to explain his views, and when he is done say, “is there anything else you would like to say?” Or ask a clarifying question like, “What did you mean when you said ‘I feel really good about myself when I am online gaming’?” Really show your son that you are paying attention. When he seems totally finished talking say, “I would like to tell you about my point of view now. Could you take a turn to listen to me for a few minutes?” If your teen isn’t prepared to give you space to talk then he is likely too upset to have a productive conversation and he needs to remove himself. Don’t push him to have this conversation if he isn’t ready unless you want another argument. The more you give him respectful listening with your full attention, the more he will then listen to you.
  4. Make it easy for your kid to act appropriately. Remember when he was just learning to walk and you had to baby-proof the house by putting all the fragile and slightly dangerous objects out of reach? You did this because there is no negotiating with a toddler and no way to explain to a baby the dangers of electrical outlets. Have you noticed it can sometimes be hard to negotiate with teenagers too? If you don’t want your teenagers to have access to alcohol then don’t keep any on your property. Similarly, if you don’t want your kid on the computer at night then lock it up or sleep with it or keep it password protected. There was a time when I was a bit worried that my son might take my vehicle for a nighttime joyride when I wasn’t around. Did I lecture him about ‘the rules’? Did I ignore my intuition? No. I just kept all the car keys with me at all times and I never said a word about it. I had peace of mind and we didn’t have a single fight about unauthorized car use. It’s the easiest thing in the world to resolve a conflict that never was!

What kind of things do you argue with your teen about? Tell me in the comments below!



Posted in Communication, Conflict Coaching, Listening, Parent-Teen Mediation | Leave a comment