Pick your parenting battles

May 22, 2009 at 10:17 a.m. ET

Have you ever heard someone say, especially as your children get older, to "pick your battles?" I hear it more and more from parents of teenagers and beyond, especially as it applies to teenagers. As I learn more and more what it means in everyday life, I am indeed picking my battles. Carefully.

Mom and Teen SonI'll admit it: I am a fairly strict mom. There are rules in this house. My children -- okay, and a few others -- might even call me a control freak. When the kids were younger, this control and order helped the house and family run fairly smoothly. Expectations, though fairly high, were clear, and they were mostly met.

But then this crazy thing called adolescence hit our house in the form of a 13-year-old boy, and things started to change. It's been a tremendous reminder that this control I like to think I have is only an illusion -- and this boy, still a boy, is catapulting toward adulthood faster than I can comprehend with his own thoughts and feelings and ideas. We've given him a good foundation, I believe, but he's necessarily starting down a path that includes more independence, a little bit of rebellion -- and lots of opportunity for both of us.

What's important to you?

I've been learning very quickly that I can't win every battle. I just can't. I have to focus on what I think are most important for the family and for his future. If I let it happen, we could argue about everything -- and I mean everything. From talking with my friends and pondering my own experiences (albeit brief, so far), adolescents have an uncanny ability to argue about anything and everything. You name it, they can argue about it -- even baseline household rules set down years before.

After much thought about what we were arguing about, I decided to let go of a few things. While I would prefer that his room be neater, I can shut the door. He still has to really clean it once a week, but on a day-to-day basis, I can let this go. Similarly, his hair. I like it shorter, he likes it longer. So long as he keeps up with grooming, I'll let that go. Since he's doing well in school, I don't argue whether he does homework in the hammock or on the couch (though never with the TV on). If grades change, we might have to address that issue, but for now I'll let it go. As far as chores go, I am learning to let go of how they are done, and focus on them actually being done. And when the room does get cleaned up, his hair is brushed, the grades are good and the chores completed, I make sure offer a lot of praise and appreciation.Common courtesy and respect, on the other hand, is an issue I will fight about. While I might let socks on the floor of his room pass for a few days, those same socks on the floor of the bathroom that we share are not okay. Being snarky to his parents or nasty to his siblings is most definitely not okay. This is a battle I will take on -- even as I am shocked that my sweet little boy has been turned into this alien by time and hormones. This is a battle I pick. Yes, it's a much bigger one than room cleanliness because it pervades every aspect of our life together. Common courtesy and respect for each other, however, is important to me as a mother. And when the courtesy does come through, again, I offer praise and appreciation. If it doesn't, we have another conversation about it. Sometimes a battle.The battles you choose in your family may be different. Every kid is different, and we'll probably have different ones even with our other children when they reach this age.

Of course, we'd like not to have conflicts at all. We tried to head them off by setting expectations long before adolescence crept in, but we are ready to fight the good fight if needed. We are still the parents, after all.

Give and take

Along with picking these battles, I am working more on communicating to my son about what "give and take" really means to us and to him right now. If he can give us the basics -- common courtesy, good grades and such -- we can give him more freedom, and he'll have more fun (within reason and appropriate for his age, of course). He seems to hear it, but we're still working on follow-through; therefore, the common courtesy and respect battle goes on.

It occurs to me that even talking about the give-and-take issue is something of a battle I have chosen, too. While I would love for my kids to do everything, make every choice with purely altruistic reasons, that's not realistic. Life -- both within and outside of the family unit -- is about compromise and cooperation. We must all realize that and learn to make the best of it. Heck, I am still learning it.Parenting battles aren't fun, but they are a part of parenting. We'll continue to make our choices of engagement based on our family's values and specific situations. Some days will be better than others. I take comfort in knowing (and remembering) that this is a phase, even if it is a tough one. All the parents who went before me in parenting teenagers have come out alive. I hear the echo of my dad's voice: "This too shall pass."

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