What If Teenagers Made the Rules?

The Gallup Organization puts some interesting information into the marketplace of ideas, but it could save a lot of time, money, and analysis if its pollsters just talked to a handful of parents.

Case in point: A survey done August 8 through 19 says, “Teens plan to treat their own children differently.” In this survey of 439 respondents aged 13 to 17, Gallup learned that 55 percent of teens plan to do things differently in raising children than their parents are doing with them.

Not surprisingly, Gallup says teens plan to be “less controlling and allow more freedom” when they're the ones making the rules.

Any parent who has ever said “No, you may not wear shorts and a tank top in mid-December, even if the mall is covered,” could predict the answer to Gallup's question.

In our house, putting teens in charge would mean a boycott of the produce section, except for baby carrots, and a diet of Krispy Kremes and pizza. We'd all stay up for episodes of Law and Order until 2 AM on school nights, we'd shop for new jeans as opposed to laundering the ones we already own, and we'd all have nine pairs of sneakers.

Eighteen percent of the teens in Gallup's poll say they will cut their own children more slack, presumably preparing their offspring for the day when the boss invariably will say, “Hey, Bob, don't worry about the proposal for that big new account — we don't want any new business around here anyway. We'd have to work way too hard if we actually had clients.”

Those teens probably are right — accountability is overrated.

One 14-year-old girl in the Gallup poll says “I will allow my children more room to make mistakes and the right decisions.” A boy of the same age says, “Give them more freedom and not shelter them, let them make decisions, but also make sure they know which ones are the wrong ones.”

This seems reasonable on the face of it — except these people don't yet know what insurance premiums are and why they go up each time you have personal contact with “your friend the police officer.”

Another 14-year-old girl offers what Gallup terms a “practical perspective.” She says she won't focus on “the smaller things like being really proper, because we don't listen anyway.”

This explains a lot, especially if you have been trampled by teens at a movie concession stand or have cleaned up after them when they have visited your home.

Gallup could have learned all this by taking a group of parents out for coffee. The short answer is, teens don't know what they don't know. And what's wrong with being sheltered in the first place?

A few years ago, some classmates of my daughter's told her she was “too sheltered” because she didn't have the freedom to channel surf without parental controls. Silly us. We were attempting to keep our 11-year-old from pornography, profanity, and shows with adult themes and violence.

She came home from school lamenting her lot in life. “I'm sheltered,” she cried, as if she had a disease. “Everyone else gets to watch whatever they want, and I don't.”

That's when I explained the dictionary definition of “shelter.”

“'Shelter' is a place you go for protection from the elements,” I said. “When you are sheltered, you're safe.”

She felt a little better, because it explained that our decision about television was in her best interest. It didn't, however, change the fact that she had never seen the MTV music video that had prompted the issue in the first place, and she wasn't getting the parental control code anytime soon.

I'm not sure how my teenage daughter would answer the survey, but I'm guessing she would not be among the 6 percent who said they plan to be stricter than their parents.

On the other hand, Gallup found that 44 percent of teens think they won't do things differently when they have their own children. Apparently, these teens are happy with things just the way they are.

These would be the teens known as “everyone,” as in “Everyone is staying out all night,” “Everyone has Internet access in their rooms” and “Everyone wears flip-flops in subzero weather.”

Contrary to popular belief, not all teens wish their parents would vaporize into beads of humidity. In fact, 5 percent of respondents told Gallup they will spend more time with their children than their parents spend with them. Some others want their folks to stop yelling and speak more kindly. Others want a different kind of discipline.

Clearly, there are things teens can improve upon when they become parents.

Still, until you're holding your baby in your arms, it's all hypothetical. Perhaps the most profound discovery a new parent makes is that your capacity to love your child is matched only by the possibility of heartache that now occupies your deepest fears.

What the survey participants don't know — can't know — is that the rules they endure are a reflection of a love that must be experienced to be explained.

Having the freedom to make mistakes is certainly important, but freedom has a flip side — responsibility — and this is the currency with which they buy their precious emancipation.

Looking back, I know that as a teen I probably would have answered the questions like the majority of those surveyed who said they would ease the reins.

That just proves that when you're young, you don't know what you don't know.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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  • daughterofeve

    Never had Cable or satellite,and I never want it. I’m 15, and I think I have the “Sheltered disease!!” EEEEEEKK!!!
    I actually DO wear flip-flops in December. Heh.