Maggie Dent talks teen safety (without suffocation)
Common-sense queen Maggie Dent talks to Harb Gill about keeping our sons safe while still giving them freedom.
A “mean, loving mum” is how author and parenting specialist Maggie Dent describes herself when her four sons, now adults, were growing up.
“I was the mum who said you’re not going to any parties until you are 16, because I know about brain research,” says Dent.
“The more we hold on to them, the better chance they have to have grown up a little, their brains have developed enough and there’s a big shift between 15 and 16 because they have gone through the riskiest parts – when they are desperate to be liked.”
Uh-oh. My 14-year-old son and his friends have been going to their mates’ birthday parties for quite a while now.
I actually enjoy driving a car-full of boys there and back, making sure an adult is present and reminding the boys to stay safe and keep their phones on.
Have times changed or are we not mean enough, I wonder?
I asked Maggie for her tips on how parents can keep teenage boys safe while allowing them greater independence. She also had some insight into what’s best for the ‘tween’ years.
Here are Maggie’s top tips:
- Make your home as ‘mate-friendly’ as possible
There’s a biological drive of needing to belong so I gave my sons space to do that. I’d say ‘have 6 to 8 of your friends over’, I cooked delicious food in huge quantities and they could watch DVDs all night.
I’d suggest getting a pool table or basketball hoop. When your son and his mates are playing and moving, they tend to talk more and build their social-emotional skills.
And put several mattresses on the floor for their ‘overs’ – sleepovers where they don’t sleep much. When boys go on the journey to manhood, they might be more resistant to hugs, but they still like the physical closeness.
You can rotate this around with other parents of course!
- Tell him to look out for his friends
This means he will look after himself too.
For example, being able to go with his friends to the skate park without adults hovering over him means he will feel trusted. It doesn’t mean we stop looking, but our conversation before he goes is centred around ‘help keep your friends safe’. Your son will take on that responsibility without realising this means he will look after himself too.
Give him clear rules
When my sons were older they had three rules around parties – never get into a car with anyone who has been drinking, never let a friend make their own way home, and never be afraid to call for help. You can have a code. When your kids send “X” as a message, you immediately pick them up.
- Discuss ‘what if’ scenarios to empower him
Have conversations with your son about ‘what ifs’ well before they start going out alone. By doing this you can double-check that he has the capacity to make those decisions if those things do happen, rather than not letting him go in case something happens. In this way, you will gradually empower him.
- Lighten up around your son
Build rapport and be light with your son – the conversations will flow more easily. If he does something wrong, your question needs to be ‘What happened and what about that was not OK?’ and ‘what would you do next time?’ rather than berating him or telling him what to do.
- All teenage boys need adult allies who are not their parents
Even a close relationship with parents is not enough. We can’t give him everything. It is important your son has one of these adult ‘lighthouses’ to talk to if he can’t bear to disappoint his parents about something. Our best teachers are already playing this role.
- Care for pre-teen boys aged 8 to 12
Around age 10, boys get massive surges that make them feel macho and tough. It is linked to testosterone but it’s also about sensitivity and developing relationships. Take your son fishing or surfing; find our what his ‘spark’ activity is and do that with him. As parents, we need to find how we can fill our son’s bucket of positive neurochemicals.
Keep him as physically active as possible at this time as well. In my experience, I’ve found that if boys sit around for too long, it can sometimes make them aggro. This time is crucial – it’s about building pathways around health and wellbeing for life. Get your son to ride a bike or walk the dog. Get him into nature (at all ages, but especially now). I used to take my boys to the beach as often as possible. It meant the house was a bit messy but it got them out into nature.
Maggie Dent is an author, educator, and parenting and resilience specialist.
Harb Gill is a journalist, university teacher and mother of a 14-year-old boy. Find her mindfulness column at harbgill.tumblr.com This article is about Parenting
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