Learning to handle a teenager

SINGAPORE - When my 10-year-old daughter recently borrowed the book How To Handle Your Mum from the National Library, we had a laugh about it. The breezy paperback was clearly written tongue-in-cheek.

Even so, there were one or two handy tips. In the chapter Training Your Mum To Be Reasonable, it had a piece of proven marketing advice for the child to get what he wants by going "over the top."

In his book Principles Of Marketing, Philip Kotler described this as the door-in-the-face technique, harking back to a time when it was common for salesmen to pitch their wares from door to door. The idea is for the salesman to make an initial pitch so outrageous, it is rejected out of hand and in danger of having the door slammed in his face. This is quickly followed with a more attractive offer that seems so much more reasonable by comparison in order to hook the buyer.

Take the following example:

"Mum, I want an iguana for a pet."

"Ugh, no way! I will not have a lizard in the house."

Cue brief tantrum. Child appears to concede defeat but moves in for the kill.

"How about a puppy then?"

"Oh, all right."

While the book was a lark, the fact that Yanbei had bothered to check it out at all was sufficient to set off a distant warning bell in my head.

Yanbei and her older sister Yanrong are hitting their teenage years, a period some people have described as the age of rebellion.

While I would not want to tag them with such a negative label, there is no denying that new tensions have cropped up between parent and child as they test the limits of parental control.

All at once, it struck me that I am entering a new phase of parenthood, one in which my daughters are no longer malleable beings to shape as I deem fit. This sounds manipulative, but true in essence.

In imparting values to our children, what are we doing if not shaping minds and behaviour, with a regular prescription of dos and don'ts and the occasional whys and wherefores thrown in?

The older my daughters get, the less they are willing to accept my dicta as the gospel truth. This is to be expected as a natural process of growing up. But the yearning for new freedom has created vexing battles, the biggest of which is in the area of social media.

Whenever I'm in a restaurant and spy harried parents pacifying their restless child by letting him jab and swipe away at a tablet while they try to eat in peace, I give thanks that Steve Jobs had not yet come up with the iPhone and iPad when my daughters were at the bawling age.

With older children, I can tell them "no" in a civilised way.

Last year, my arguments with Yanbei and Yanrong were over how much game time they got. The issue has since moved on to social media.

I traced its genesis to two developments as a result of Yanrong's transition from primary to secondary school this year.

First, I gave her a mobile phone so she could communicate more readily with her mum and me. It was necessary, given her very fluid school schedule. Some days, she is already home by half past two, but other days, she doesn't get back until nearly seven.

Second, her secondary school mandates that all students must have a personal notebook as part of the academic curriculum. So Yanrong got to have her own computer instead of sharing the family computer.

An iPhone and a MacBook in the hands of a teenager are like candies to babies, as I soon discovered. No doubt these devices are useful and increasingly indispensable in our fast-paced world. But they also opened the door to the insidious and pervasive infiltration of social media.

It is not something I can simply put my foot down on as Yanrong relies on WhatsApp and Facebook to keep track of her schedule. As all her classmates and co-curricular mates are hooked on social networks, banning access to them will simply cut off a key channel of communication.

To accommodate one daughter also means having to mollify the other. Never mind she is two years younger, but as far as Yanbei is concerned, any privilege her sister gets, she must have it too.

At Primary 5, there is no necessity to get on the social media platform, I have explained again and again, to no avail. My headstrong younger daughter will have none of it.

If she could not have her own cellphone and Facebook account, she simply shared her sister's.

This was untenable as Yanrong's friends would sometimes query her about something she had supposedly posted in her account and her reply was, well, she hadn't.

This is one battle I cannot win, so now Yanbei has her own Facebook account. As consolation, I get to write the terms of surrender:

She is not to "befriend" people whom she does not know in real life, she must never divulge personal details that could compromise safety and security and so on.

Did she pull a door-in-the-face trick on me? I'm not sure. But I will be very interested indeed if she borrows a book with a title like, How To Handle Your Dad.


How do you learn to balance your teenage children's demands for more independence with house rules? Write to stlife@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
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