Convenience parenting

26 Jul

By Professor Nick Clements

I am employed by governments and local authorities to advise them on their provision for young people. I also run training programmes enabling teenagers to make positive contributions to society. I have specialised in working with teenagers since 1975, when I was one myself. Such work is not glamorous, it is mostly hard work, but it can also be very rewarding. I am the parent of two children who are in their twenties.

Right now there is a strong media focus on teenagers and their associated problems, especially since the riots of last year. I welcome the attention, although I do not agree with some of the opinions being expressed. Most of the reactions to the riots or similar stories of adrenalin fuelled escapades have been simplistic – lock them up, bring back conscription, ‘a clip round the ear from a policeman never did me any harm’. After the knee-jerks it feels as though we are starting to address the long-term issues of being a teenager and how to integrate them in a more mature manner. Considered alternatives urgently need to be explored, it is not a problem which will simply go away.

Over the years I’ve developed a few techniques and ways of working with teenagers, particularly those referred to me by social services and other agencies. I’m happy to share the theory of this practice, and I hope this adds to the debate.

To start with, we must recognise that a teenager (let’s say he is a boy) doesn’t appear fully-grown on the planet. He is a child before he becomes a teenager. Many of the troubles with teenager behaviour lie in the way they were treated as children. In recent years we have been encouraged to be formulaic in our parenting of children. Part of this formula has created what I call ‘convenience parenting’. Convenience parents don’t like to waste their time, they look for short cuts, and are very good at blaming others. The encumbrance and responsibility of having to bring up a child or children is minimised by their reliance and dependence on external artefacts, people, and services. All of them set up for the benefit of the parent, not the child. From birth through to teenagehood the needs of the child are subservient to the wants of the convenience parent, and this is incredibly damaging for the developing child.

Convenience parenting
Convenience parenting is endemic and we are so familiar with it that we probably don’t recognise many of it’s symptoms. Here are ten symptoms which I come across very often in my work:

1 It starts at with pregnancy and particularly birth. The process of birth is hurried along by drugs, forceps, impatient doctors, worried and concerned parents. Caesarean births are on the increase, stirrup births are exponentially increasing for the convenience of doctors and out of fear of litigation. Many babies who are quite happy in the womb are violently and abruptly dragged out against their will, because they are past their ‘due’ date. This causes trauma, stress and vulnerability to diseases and illness.

2 For nine months the baby has been held securely in the womb, and he needs to continue having that skin on skin close contact with someone. It doesn’t have to be the mother, but he will seek physical contact at all times. Often this ‘demanding individual’ is put down in a cot and left alone. Worst of all left to cry himself to sleep. This is certainly not for his convenience, but it somehow makes sense to the parents.

3 Children gain skills, abilities and qualities from spending time with their parents. This is different in many ways from time with paid servants and child minders. If someone is paid to look after a baby, the quality of their care for him will not be as deep or loving as that of the parent who does it out of love. The child wants to bond very strongly with the parents, he want to know who his parents are, to spend quality time with them. The parents gain hugely from this shared time too! All too often the child doesn’t play or have fun with their parents.

4 Children need to be played with, every day. Play is the best and most effective way of learning. The sad truth is I am employed to teach parents how to spend time with their children – enabling them to recognise it as useful to them and to their child – indeed many parents start to play and have fun for the first time in their lives.

5 Children need to be in awe of the world, to explore and be imaginative. I show parents how to stop stifling their children’s creativity and wonder. Certain phrases are guaranteed to stifle and restrict.
‘Don’t do that’
‘Yuk, it’s dirty’
‘Boys don’t cry’
These are not good ways of communicating about the world.
‘Aren’t you clever’
‘Let’s explore this together’
‘I don’t know, so let’s find out’
Will open new horizons and promote closeness and love.

6 Becoming a parent alters and affects your social life. It takes some parents a great deal of time to realise they have responsibilities and commitments as a parent. They can’t go out when they like, they need to take care of their child, they are restricted in many ways. They have to change their lifestyle.

7 Television and computers are distractions, they can be educational, they are not child minders.

8 Spending time listening to your children instead of trying to keep them quiet is essential, and should be practiced every day.

9 Going on a family holiday should be a shared experience, not farming the children out to inexperienced teenagers to amuse them for 10 hours a day.

10 Driving them to and from activities and courses, being the taxi, isn’t necessarily ‘good parenting’. Use the time to share discussions and thoughts, don’t ignore each other.

There are many more examples of convenience parenting, but I think you get the picture. The cumulative effect is the child doesn’t know his parents, and the parents don’t know him. There is a huge gulf between them, and this becomes accentuated with the oncoming of puberty and teenagehood.

The parents can be suddenly confronted by a raging scary teenager, who, for them, seems to have appeared from nowhere. He has been so sidelined, suppressed, ignored, disenfranchised, rebutted, farmed out – he has a great deal of righteous rage, and is now prepared to kick and shout in order to be seen and heard.

Many teenagers have attempted to conform, be quiet, be good, during their formative years. This strategy comes from their wish to please their parents. All they wanted in return was to be listened to, and receive attention and praise. However, by the time they become teenagers they realise this strategy has failed. They haven’t received the attention, love and care they wanted by being ‘good’. So what alternative is open to them? Gain the attention by other means.

Too many parents of teenagers come to me and say:
‘I can’t understand it, I gave him everything he wanted.’
Material goods mean nothing, without love, time and personal attention they are hollow.
They then add.
‘I just want him to be good. To not use drugs, not get a girl pregnant.’
If he does this, it would be most inconvenient for the parents.

Teenagers are not just teenagers
There is a huge difference between your son as a 13 year old and a 19 year old. You need to treat him differently as he grows. He will not necessarily become a man suddenly on his 20th birthday. The process and changes he is involved in can take many years, often 15 years or longer to resolve. He is making a transition from being a child to being a grown up, and this is not simple. For me, he is involved in three separate but linked developmental processes:-

He is sorting out his ‘pecking order’
He is leaving home
He is trying to define himself

Pecking order
At this age we test each other out. The flexing of muscles, both physical and metaphorical is to be expected. It enables teenagers to build their friendship and work circles. This inevitably leads to rivalries, disappointments, misunderstandings and trouble, as well as bonding, friendships and love.

Leaving home
He should be wanting to leave home, to make his way in the world, to no longer rely on his parents. This can be very traumatic for the parents as well as the teenagers.

Defining himself
He is seeking to define himself anew, not as the son of the mother, but as an individual. The creation of a new, original, identity is vital. This new person is best created by following his passion – finding what he is good at – rather than trying to conform to other people’s expectations. The expectations of parents’ and teachers’ can often be very biased and divisive, they may well need to be challenged.

These are three very difficult tasks. We seem to have forgotten quite how complex this work is. We expect our teenagers to complete the process in a few months, a couple of years at the most, and then everything can return to being ‘normal’ again. The whole point is, as parents of teenagers, our lives will never be the same again, there is no going back. Most of the problems parents encounter with their teenagers come from not listening to them, or not showing them enough respect. I always say as the older partners in the relationship it is up to the parents to start the process of change.

Here is my hit-list for evaluating your relationship with your teenager, do you do all or any of the following? :

Take time to realise that the three tasks for teenagers are challenging and difficult. Listen to his concerns, wishes and hopes. Spend time with other teenagers, not your own, it will amaze you how complicated, intelligent and brave they are. Bring that back home with you.

It’s never too late…
To say you are sorry, to build bridges, to listen and learn, to say you love him, to give him a hug, to spend time with him.

Talk to him, not at him
Tell him about your passions, share your enthusiasms. How you have been thwarted in the past, your disappointments. Don’t patronise him, tell it is at it was. Ask him about his dreams, wishes and aspirations, don’t dismiss anything.

Express your appreciation and gratitude
Emphasise the positive. Tell him how you feel when he does things in a collaborative or loving manner. Be grateful for the little things he does.

Don’t’ take it personally
Remember it’s just a phase he’s going through. He will not be like this all the time. We all go through such times. Take deep breaths.

Role models
As a parent of a child you can be a role model and hero to him. However, when he becomes a teenager, he will need different and diverse role models. He is trying to separate from you – so he is naturally looking beyond you and into the wider world. He will seek male role models, so provide him with some. If you don’t, he will find his own.

They need to make mistakes
If he is always protected and cosseted, it is not so easy to learn. It is a lot quicker and more effective to learn from mistakes than successes. This is a tough lesson for the parents, let alone the teenager.

Teenagers who make mistakes will become interesting grown ups. Do you want to restrict and stop him from developing wholly and completely? In order to do so he needs to experience the shadow as well as the light.

He is asking the question ‘Why?’
That’s what teenagers do. It is a difficult question to answer. You can no longer give glib answers. You need to answer him fully, as an adult, not a child. Maybe some of his ideas are actually better than yours!

He is still very young
Please remember this when you see a bunch of kids hanging out on a street corner. They are vulnerable young people despite their appearance. If you have this attitude you are far less likely to be threatened or abused.

Don’t try to act, look, or talk like them
All too often the youth and community workers I share my practice with suffer under the delusion that they can imitate and ‘get with’ the young people. It is not attractive, and will almost invariable alienate the teenagers you are seeking to connect to.

Be yourself, be honest
I remain myself whilst working with teenagers. Indeed I often stress the differences in age and outlook. Teenagers like me because I know who I am, I have an opinion. I share my mistakes as well as my triumphs.

Respect is to be won, not a given
Many people tell me young people have no respect for their elders. Young people say to me. ‘You have to earn respect, just because you’re old doesn’t mean you deserve respect’. They respect me when they get to know me, when I have proved my worth. That’s how it should be.

So many parents focus on the negative. They become depressed and angered by his ‘failure’ to be ‘successful’. Every cloud has a silver lining. He may take drugs, his girlfriend may have an abortion, but they worked it out themselves. What is success? If you believe in them, if you love them, they are successful.

Touch them
Many parents stop cuddling and comforting him when he becomes a teenager. The withdrawal of physical contact between the parents and the teenager can cause a lot of damage on a number of levels. He may object, but notice how and when, probably in front of others, when you are alone continue to offer physical comfort.

The human race is a long one. Please don’t prejudge a teenager’s success or failure. They still have a long way to go to becoming a complete human being. The role of the teenager in society is vital. They challenge the establishment. They bring about change, disruption, and renewal. Such energetic disruptions are to be encouraged not stifled. Especially given the mess we have created on the planet and within our society, we need to be listening to them and encouraging them to take responsible actions as well as being adventurous.

It feels like we have turned our backs on teenagers. We need to be bringing them back into society rather than turning them into outlaws and outcasts. A mature society and responsible parents can accept the risks of such a strategy. Indeed the survival of our species depends on us taking such action.

Nick Clements is an author, consultant and workshop leader using creativity to address social and environmental problems. He is also employed to teach and lectures on masculinity all over the world. His unique techniques enable thousands of people to move through personal development to recognise their benefit for the wider community. His work remains a benchmark in his field, in recognition of his outstanding contribution he was made a Visiting Lecturer at Staffordshire University in 2009.
He has written two books on male rites of passage and is available to facilitate groups and workshops on such issues.
He is about to publish a novel on masculinity ‘The Alpha Wolf’ which will be available in early 2013.
For more information about his work and books on masculinity, visit

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