What do you see when you look at your teen? Sometimes, the signs are clear. If he comes home from school with a black eye or a torn shirt or a missing backpack, you know that something is terribly wrong.
But what if you see a son who always tucks his shirt in and keeps his room reasonably neat? After all, your child pulls decent grades and is known for speaking politely to adults.
What you see and what you get
Maybe there was a little bit of trouble at school -- a detention or two, nothing serious. Boys will be boys, right? And he explained it to you. He was late to class, he admitted that. But it was because he saw one of his friends smoking and he couldn't stand it, so he took the time to put out the cigarette and lecture the friend, and he missed a few minutes of math, but he accepted responsibility.
Maybe you hear it in his voice when he talks about other students, that hint of superiority, that innate sense of entitlement. But his father was the same way, and he's a perfectly upstanding citizen now. Really, you're a lucky woman. You don't need to worry about your child.
Except that you do. Because it's critical for parents to be vigilant all the time.
Vigilant v. obsessive
Some parents practice obsessive parenting. It's a fun game, where you worry constantly about everything your child does or might do or could possibly do if you accidentally handed him a hammer and a chainsaw.
Obsession alone doesn't equal vigilance. Sitting around and worrying about what might happen does not actually accomplish anything. Vigilance, on the other hand, is an awareness of what's going on that implies a commitment to prevention.
If you sit at home worrying that your child will end up homeless if he cuts school, you're obsessing. If you make an unpredictable habit of showing up at school, talking to teachers and administrators, and regularly checking that your kid is where he's supposed to be, you're vigilant.
A vigilance primer
Our children are not always the most reliable of narrators. It's irresponsible to accept what they tell us as absolute truth. We have an obligation to question, to look for proof, to suspect.
So how exactly do you do this vigilance thing? Make your house the one the kids hang out in. Pick up a party platter and make it comfortable for the kids to watch movies on your television. Get to know your child's friends. Insist on it; make it a condition of socializing.
If you can't state the names of five of your child's closest friends and the names of their parents
, all the obsessing in the world won't make up for your lack of vigilance.
What vigilance isn't
Asking questions doesn't mean accusing your child. Always start from a place of respect. Instead of greeting your child with an angry, "Where have you been?" try a different tack.
Start with basic pleasantries, then ask for specifics. "What did you do today?" Be open with your teen. "Look, I'm going to keep asking until I get some real answers. So let's make it easy. Tell me three things you did today, and three people who you were with."
Talk to teachers and administrators. Make it clear that you're looking to them for their expertise. Ask them, "If he were your child, what would you be worried about?" Their answers might surprise you, for better or for worse. Maybe your academically gifted child is starting to strive for a more prominent social standing at the expense of his morals. Maybe your budding athlete is exacerbating an injury in hopes of a scholarship.
Most importantly, spend time with your child every day, even if it's just 15 minutes. Get creative. If schedules won't allow for a family dinner, make breakfast your "all together" meal. Or insist on a fifteen-minute walk around the block before bed, when you can catch up, touch base and reconnect.
It's not easy to give up obsessing in favor of vigilance, but it's important. And it's the only way to know who your child is.