The most basic reason it is vital to keep our testing teenagers busy is not to use these years to introduce them to the wonders of the arts, great literature, or even for them to become sporting stars. It is simply to make them so exhausted that they don’t have the energy to get into trouble. The very last thing the testing teenager needs is a six-week school holiday where he is at home alone, with no idea what to do on day one, never mind day thirty-one. The same is true of evenings and weekends.
Before you accuse me of encouraging you to control your teenagers so they won’t have time for a social life, let me reassure you that this is the least of your worries – most of them won’t let you do that anyway. It is simply one extra strategy to help you get your child through this turbulent period – especially the younger teenage years. Every hour, every evening, every summer holiday where he or she is involved in some structured leisure pursuit, is one less opportunity for them to drive you or somebody else crazy.
If your child is sporty, then such activities are easier to come by, but we daren’t give up on this strategy even if our teenager couldn’t score a goal to save his life. It doesn’t have to be expensive, or involve you in a constant shuttle from scouts, to karate, from piano to ballet. The main ingredients are structure. It needs to be an activity they enjoy that involves meeting others, a level of commitment and developing a skill. But before you rush out and buy that musical instrument, remember that it may not turn out exactly as you imagine. Your hope is to see Carl plucking away at a Spanish guitar as part of the National Youth Orchestra. What actually happens is that he gets together most nights of the week with three mates who manage to murder the finest heavy metal music ever written!
There’s another reason this is important – and it’s not just about keeping them busy. It has to do with dignity. When we help our teenagers develop a skill, we give them a sense of self-worth that may help them resist some of the more dangerous pressures to gain acceptance by their peers.
When we help our teenagers develop a skill, we give them a sense of self-worth.
Having a skill builds confidence, gives purpose, and in the case of a testing teenager who shares a home with a compliant sibling, may just save the day. The reason behind this is not hard to fathom. That testing teenager lives all her life with the knowledge that in most of the categories of family life her compliant sibling scores ‘A’s. She’s not stupid; she knows her parents love her sister’s sunny disposition and the way she’s always asked to take the lead in school plays. She watches in despair as her sister helps around the house, cleans out the rabbit cage, and greets guests and makes them coffee. And all of this creates two opposing emotions in her. First, she sometimes thinks she hates her sister for being such a creep, but second, another part of her longs for the acceptance and praise that she senses her sister enjoys from her parents. She believes there is nothing in her life that her sister can’t do better than her.
But now she has taken up ice-hockey. She’s at the rink at least three evenings a week, and she can’t remember now how she had so much time to hang around every evening outside the local corner shop. Every weekend she’s in a match. And the really cool thing is that she knows her parents are proud of her. They still have loads of rows in the house and her goody-two-shoes sister is still top of the pile in every other category – except for this. And when she scores a goal or even just makes a great pass, she senses her parents on the rink-side, smiling … And it makes her feel warm inside and kind of special.