Teaching teenagers the difference between "appropriate" and "inappropriate"


In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown says that in an interconnected world, people don’t necessarily know how to discriminate between choices. In fact, I’d venture to say that some teenagers have lost their ability to judge what is important from what isn’t. This spells trouble if we’re talking about behaviour because in many of their minds anything goes, while in even the most broad-minded of us, an anything-goes approach can be a recipe for disaster.

Amy Alkon, who has written a book on manners, says that in her opinion society is becoming ruder, because we are so hyper-connected that we have lost something of the common decency that goes with living with people we know. Historically, our brains, she says, have become used to living with people and somehow, the more time we spend interconnected (on technology), the less time we spend with people with whom we have to share respectful relationships.

In my opinion, one of the key roles of parents is that we should be the guardians of good manners and acceptable behaviour, whether or not that is welcome. We should say aloud what we think is appropriate or not. This is not quite the same as being a walking, talking guide to good manners, but it comes pretty close at times.

Saying what is appropriate or inappropriate implies more of a social aspect to what’s okay or not okay. The word “rule” is far more likely to get up any teenager’s nose rather than couching things in terms of what’s appropriate or not. “Appropriate” implies that this kind of thing is the same for the Smiths who live two doors down, or the cousins who live in the neighbouring suburb. So I think that one of our jobs as parents is to let them know what’s “appropriate” or “inappropriate”, as the case may be.

For instance, you might be telling your teenager it is not appropriate to:

  • Bring your phone or text or check it when we’re eating together.
  • Visit websites that are not okay – suicide, radicalisation, violent or abusive sites where people are not respected – generally revolting media – especially when you are paying the bill.
  • Distribute your family’s private business to public scrutiny on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. No, this is not okay.
  • Not let you know where you are or if they are going to be home late.
  • Just let Mum or Dad do all the work while you do nothing to contribute.

You might also tell them it is “appropriate” to:

  • Greet someone by shaking their hand firmly while looking them in the eye.
  • Spend 10 minutes with adult visitors before you leave to then go and do your own thing.
  • Acknowledge somebody when they do something for you.
  • To pitch in by doing something: Bake a cake, tell a funny story, or wash up occasionally.
  • To act with kindness in your dealings with others. After all, most people are trying their best.

I accept that our teenagers will have different interests to us, but that doesn’t mean that they can assume it’s okay to bring their beliefs from the ghetto or from some online world which you do not appreciate. They are entitled to have differing interests to you, but when the ugly side of those interests start getting played out in your home and begin to affect how you live together… Well, it’s time to challenge that.

It is not okay for your son, for instance, to be saying things like, “Get your woman in order!” to their friends or even their elders, because this is common parlance in the media that they are hearing or watching. We do not live in the ghetto, and nor is it appropriate, in a mature society, for young people to be subscribing to this type of talk which feeds misogyny.

The kind of value-setting I’m talking about doesn’t have to be a formal thing, but it does have to be done. In my mind, it’s a bit like identifying the holding pattern you expect them to exist within while they live with you. What I’m talking about here is some kind of absolute minimum stuff, like the respect you hold for one another.

Truly, you need to say some things aloud. Think of it as making the invisible visible – and identifying family values that represent your lives together – saying things like:

  • Guys, we love you. You know that, don’t you? But we live here as a family, not in some hotel come-and-go-as-you-like arrangement, so you’ll need to talk to us about where you want to go, with whom, and when you plan to be home.
  • We will provide for you as best we can; we also expect that you will respect the people who live here. That means not whacking your sister and instead, coming to us if something happens where you’re tempted to hit her.
  • Look guys, here’s the deal: While you are living here, we expect you to live according to our family values- not like the ones on Home and Away. It’s not the set of Home and Away. So, it’s not okay for you to regularly make dramas out of little stuff.
  • That may be the way that you see rappers speaking to other people, Joe, but they live a different life to us here – and I really don’t want that kind of talk around here. Your sister is not “a ho” and I don’t want you to speak to her like that.

In saying all of this, I am not saying that you should run your family like the VonTrapps. And nor am I saying you should curtail your children’s personal style. However, unless you have a good grasp of what’s important versus what’s not, you will find yourself relinquishing control when it’s not necessary. Or you’ll appear wishy-washy about things you really need to be firm about.  And when you are wishy-washy, with a difficult-temperament teenager, not only will she not respect you, but you’ll stand less chance of being able to influence her when you need to.

It’s helpful, then, to think about what the important baseline expectations are in your family.  While such a list will differ from family to family, some common expectations might be:

  • That we all have a right to live safely in our own home.
  • That we are each entitled to be treated with respect.
  • That we will all contribute to the general upkeep and day‐to‐day maintenance of the household.
  • That we’ll regularly spend some time together as a family.
  • That you (adolescents) will work towards independence by attending school or training, and trying your best.
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