Ask An Academy Expert: Tobi Ragon

Staying connected to our kids…and to each other.

One of the things I love about being a part of an independent school like Cape Fear Academy is the community support of our parents. We often have the opportunity to come together in small groups for morning coffees, book studies, or even talks in the courtyard to share parenting struggles or advice. There is something so reassuring to know that I have the support and knowledge of a like-minded community to help guide me along the journey of parenthood.

This past October we organized one such opportunity for parents of teenagers. A few years ago I had a parent recommend the book, “Staying Connected To Your Teenager,” by Michael Riera. Staying connected … what a novel concept during such tumultuous times. It was a refreshing read during a time where we can feel so disconnected from our people.  

But staying connected to teenagers? That’s a herculean task even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic!  During this intense time of adolescence, it can seem that the last thing our teenagers want is connection to their parents. They are desperately yearning for independence and autonomy, resisting any urge to hear our quiet (or not so quiet) voices echoing in their fading memories. I longingly remember the days that my kids hung onto every word of advice or guidance I gave, and I was rather skeptical that a book could help the distance growing between us.

I was pleasantly surprised to read so many practical and easily implemented suggestions for building a bridge to our teenagers’ hearts. Riera’s outlook on the topic was realistic and doable. This book was full of “how’s” and also had me rethinking the ways I approach parenting in general. In the margins I wrote questions like, “What is my ultimate goal for my kids?” and “What messages are they receiving from my constant lectures?” Throughout one of my favorite chapters, Riera points out that as teenagers mature we can shift the priorities from compliance to our rules and expectations towards mastery over their own life. Their. Own. Life.  “Not my life,” I noted.  

This was a common theme throughout Riera’s book that resonated with every parent that joined our book study. Teenagers are on a journey towards independence. We asked, what is our role in nurturing their personal growth into adulthood? When our children are young, we are repeating and reinforcing our values, our rules, and our expectations without a thought about the day they actually need to oppose our endless guidelines and reasoning.  Riera argues that during the teenage years our expectations towards compliance should be replaced with strategic support of the emerging adult’s individual development and independence. 

Riera argues that if we cannot make space for their incessant arguing and their push against our boundaries we send a message of, “I don’t trust that you can become an independent thinker or responsible adult.” (Maybe because right now I don’t, Mr. Riera!?!?) Still, much like when they were learning a new skill at age seven, we should allow for mistakes or missteps and be the safety net to support their trials and errors without constant lectures and advice. They’re only listening to their peers at this point anyway, so let’s reconsider our approach. I didn’t take the paintbrush out of their messy and imperfect hands when they were seven; now I must resist the urge to stifle the argumentative tongue in their angsty heads. Sigh….

My fellow parents and colleagues shared a few good laughs (and cries) as we discussed the book together. We tossed around the ideas Riera suggested, while lamenting the important nuances that we so often miss. What’s the best way to get them talking? Evidently I need to be awake at 1 am. (This is where I cried). What’s the alternative to fussing about screen time or curfew? Try “giving the problem back” to our teenagers, who will likely surprise us with their insight and suggestions. Talk less, ask more questions; this was our takeaway.

As a school counselor of nearly 15 years, I always knew the day would come when I needed to take my own advice as a parent. Instead of solely trusting my experience as a professional, I lean more and more on my fellow CFA parents’ advice. I trust their judgment, appreciate their insights, and feel safe going to them for support.  

We have created a safe place where we recognize the power in our “village.” We all have different opinions, different styles, AND we all want the same things for our children. Our shared mission: “to explore their individual potential and prepare them for success in college and life.” While I get to define our family’s version of success, I am comforted to know that I have access to a community of wise parents who deal with the same challenges we do each day.

Guiding teenagers is proving to be one of the biggest challenges in parenthood. During tough times I yearn for expert knowledge like Michael Riera’s, and I cherish the support of my CFA parents and colleagues. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we find ways to connect and grow together.  For this, I am grateful.