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Three Simple Rules for Parenting the Modern Teen

I spend my days in the company of teens, teaching high school and traveling the world to talk about the autonomy, competence, and relationships kids need to become self-directed, motivated learners.

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I love teaching and speaking. But the best part of my job, the reason I endure delayed flights, endless drives and bad hotel coffee, is the listening.

At the end of every student presentation, I ask them to share the things they want me to tell their parents when I meet with them later that night.

The kids are hesitant at first. But as their classmates begin to reveal concerns and questions, nods of understanding quickly become a joyful crescendo of snaps, stomps, and claps to indicate shared experience.

I revel in these moments. The moments when I’m no longer some adult they’ve been instructed to listen to. When I’m invited into their world. When they trust me not just to listen, but to hear.

Because that’s where they always begin, with a plea to be heard.

My Three Parenting Rules

1) Listen to teenagers

One of the most important jobs of adolescence is to find individual voice. Teens need to reject childhood’s mimicry. They need to shape a unique perspective on the world, and find the courage to express that perspective out loud.

Colleges are looking for this voice. And later, mentors and employers will look for it too. It’s a voice that distinguishes itself, a voice with the potential to leap off the page and launch them onto success above and beyond that of the clamoring, madding crowd.

And then, just as kids find the courage to test these voices, we stop listening.

It’s time to put down our phones, rein in our defensiveness, anxiety, and fea—and listen.

2) Give Teenagers Space

Adolescence is all about the process of individuation. It’s the process of separating from parents and becoming a unique person. And this person may or may not agree with everything their parents believe or represent.

Parents who read their teens’ texts, digitally track their movements through the world, or otherwise invade teens’ privacy, allow no space for this individuation to occur.

Unfortunately for these parents, teens find a way to carve privacy out for themselves, often through deception. When I ask kids why they lie about stupid, inconsequential stuff, when they tell their parents that they are at the coffee shop when they are really at the drugstore, they roll their eyes and say, “I have so little that’s mine, sometimes I tell little lies so I can have room to breathe.”

That quote printed on millions of inspirational posters from the 1970s, the one about loving someone so much you let them go? A cliché, to be sure, but as apt a mantra as any for parents looking to have an honest, durable relationship with their teens.

3) Don’t Compare One Teenager to Anyone Else

“I’m not my sister.” “I’m not my brother.” “I’m not my parents when they were my age.”

I know. I can’t believe I have to spell this one out, either.

This rule appears at the top of every Parenting 101 syllabus. It’s a rule so worthy of a collective “Duh,” that many of us skipped right over it in favor of more advanced lessons on time out duration and guilt-tripping tweens into unloading the dishwasher.

And yet this simple appeal is consistently one of the top three things kids ask me to tell their parents.

The more I talk to kids about what they need to be successful, happy, and mentally healthy, the simpler and more self-evident the rules become.

It’s what we all want from the people we love, after all. We want to feel heard, to know we have a place of our own in this world, and to be loved for who we truly are.

Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Find out more at jessicalahey.com.