Giving in to our fear for our teens is a big risk

October 07, 1997|By Susan Reimer

WHEN MY children were learning to walk, they were forever tip-toeing to the brink of death. They would step off the stairs into thin air just as I grabbed their shirt collars. I would haul them back to safety as they howled in outrage, my heart pounding like a kettle drum.

All these years later, I still see myself as vigilant and them as carelessly bold. I see myself as the human barbed-wire fence, separating them from what they believe is an adventure and what I fear: the new, the unknown, the unpredictable.

But in Dr. Lynn Ponton, author and adolescent psychiatrist, my children have what they do not have in me: someone to cheer them on as they take the risks that will shape their character.

Not the risks that will land them in intensive care. Ponton makes very clear distinctions between healthy and unhealthy risks. But in her book, "The Romance of Risk: Why Teen-agers Do the Things They Do," she makes a case for risk-taking in teens that hyper-vigilant parents like me may not have considered.

"In my work, two things have remained absolutely clear over the years," she writes. "Adolescents are going to take risks, and most parents of adolescents are terrified about this."

I've considered risk-taking something I needed to prevent. Ponton suggests instead that it is something I can help my kids manage.

Risk doesn't have to mean "dangerous," Ponton explains. Risk can mean new or different. Whitewater rafting or volunteering to work with children. A new sport or photography lessons. Hiking the Appalachian Trail or going to work for the community theater. Being an exchange student or taking a part-time job.

It is these new and different experiences -- experiences that carry the possibility of failure or disappointment -- that help give depth and color to the young adult your child is working to create.

"Healthy risk-taking is not only important in itself, but it may help prevent unhealthy risk-taking," Ponton says, channeling energy and curiosity and rewarding with the rush, the exhilaration often yearned for.

Without these healthy risks, these positive challenges, your child's character may be stunted and opaque. There is a T-shirt kids wear that says, "What does not kill you makes you stronger." Ponton makes the same case, in a somewhat less dramatic fashion.

But while we need to encourage our children to take heathy risks, Ponton says, we must also help them understand the difference between new experiences and dangerous ones -- the ones that may kill them.

Parents believe there is something inherently dangerous about being a teen-ager today, and that there is nothing we can do "but hold our collective breath and pray," she says.

But this throwing up of the hands denies our kids the benefit of our years.

Those of us who took all kinds of crazy risks when we were young -- and lived to tell the tale -- can help our kids navigate the choices out there.

"Parents need to find ways to talk about their own histories of risk-taking and experimenting," says Ponton. "And to let teens know mistakes are not fatal, but to encourage them to make different, more healthy choices than those the parent made."

Confess that you drank as a teen and paid no attention to the condition of the kid driving the car. Tell him it was stupid and that you will chauffeur him without recrimination if he ever finds himself in the same situation.

Confess that you went farther with your boyfriend than you wanted to go, but that you were responding to his pressure, not your feelings for him. It was risky and degrading and you didn't even like the guy that much. Tell her that she, not some cute guy, is in charge of her sexual experiences, but that also means she must protect herself against pregnancy and disease and not count on him to do it.

"You don't have to give the details of your own past," says Ponton. "Just illustrate the process of decision-making.

"They may tell you that you are from the dark ages, but they do listen. I have heard teens say it in my office: 'My mom told me she did this and it helped me.' "

Ponton has two teen-aged daughters of her own, and she has worked with troubled teens all of her professional life. This book is not a warning, but a celebration of those kids.

"I think adolescent behavior is stigmatized in our culture," she says. "We think their behavior is something we must prevent.

"If we could see it in a more positive light, we would be kinder to our teens and we would be doing ourselves a favor," she says. "We would not be afraid of them or their behavior."

Although, I suspect, we will always be afraid for them.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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