Monday, June 18, 2012

Tales from the Dark Side (of the moon, that is)

I wrote a while back about how teenagers (boys, especially) seem to go to the dark side of the moon during their adolescence. And by the dark side of the moon, I mean out of radio contact. And by out of radio contact, I mean they simply aren’t connecting with the things we parents think they need to connect with.

Sometimes the dark side of the moon and lack of radio contact means they don’t want to associate with parents and siblings (leave me alone!). Or they don’t want to live in a social society (leave me alone, and stay out of my room!). Or they know better than their parents (you just don’t get it!).

While out of radio contact, they will often question and challenge family norms and mores. They may challenge house rules and they may reject the faith of their fathers. (As Latter-day Saints we are sometimes pleased and even impressed when a young person does this and joins the church; we are horrified when one of our own does it and leaves.)

Parents, of course, wonder how to reach kids when they are out of radio contact. And I wish I could tell you how to do it. I can’t. But I can share some things I learned along the way. Last time I wrote about the need to fill our kids’ well so that when they are out of touch with us, they will still have some of “us” in reserve.

Here are three more ideas:

1. Use other voices (that is the voices of others, not becoming Mel Blanc, though if a Bugs Bunny impersonation gets their attention, go for it!). We rely on our friends, the parents of our kids’ friends, to reinforce lessons we teach our kids. This is true for our LDS and non-LDS friends. Of course as kids grow older and become more independent, it’s increasingly difficult to keep track of friends and their parents. We rely on church leaders and teachers to help. Studies the church has done have shown that seminary teachers have consistently scored at the top of the list of key influencers for those who have served missions. And we hope that good friends (in and out of the church) will also be a voice of reason for our kids. (Of course this last one is the most challenging, since our kids’ friends are all similar ages and may be in their own period of radio silence.)
2. We have also found that talking to the kids constantly helps. And listening. Whenever they want. I remember ten or eleven years ago when our youngest was an infant and our oldest kids were older teens. The baby would nurse and go to bed and then the older kids would suddenly want to talk to their mom into the wee hours of the morning. Frankly, I don’t know how my lovely wife survived those years of teenage boys and babies. But her constant willingness to talk and to listen (even when she hated what she heard) was a huge factor in our kids’ staying connected even as they separated from some of the things that were most important to us.
My oldest daughter went through a phase in which she did not talk to her mother. Sometimes for days. And my lovely wife would not know why. Sometimes I would come home from work and get the assignment to figure out why the cone of silence had descended and excluded my lovely wife. Fortunately, that period was very short for our daughter.

3. That experience points out another tool in our toolbox, namely that we both have roles to play. I don’t know if it’s Freudian or normal or if we’re victims of stereotyping, but the boys always had a better relationship with their mom in those years, and the girls have gone through periods of time in which they seem more willing to talk to me. We are very lucky to have both of us around to share the task of parenting, and sometimes one of us can do what the other can’t.
It took some time for me to learn that it was more important to me for my kids to want to be at my dining room table than on the bench next to me in sacrament meeting, but that has made a huge difference in how we related to our kids, especially those who have not followed us in church activity. (I’ve blogged about that here and here.)

Happy to hear your thoughts about how to communicate with those who are in radio silence.

UPDATE:  Ardis has posted a second installment on Vanguard Scouting.  The first section of the post does a nice job of explaining some of the signs of movement to the dark side of the moon.  You can find her post here.


  1. Fortunately we rarely experienced that so called "normal" experience of radio silence, and have found that many families who homeschool their children don't either. It's my feeling that spending all day, every day with our children creates the communication channels that aren't interrupted by teenage hormones. Whether on purpose or not, public schools teach children to distrust their parents and question the wrong things. I actually love my teens because they are finally able to reason and converse intelligently about serious subjects. I enjoy their questions and search for understanding. We live where we have had homestudy seminary and the year I studied daily with JET was fabulous. We had the BEST conversations about the gospel ever. I think your suggestions are really good. Quality time and teaching moments can't be scheduled, they just happen; seizing the moment makes a huge difference. So does keeping your sense of humor and perspective. I told our children that when they left home they could live any way they pleased, but in our home they had to live the gospel and participate; also I told them that I was going to teach them certain things whether they wanted to learn or not, because I didn't want them to be able to say later "My mother (parents) never taught me that." I am commanded to teach them the gospel and when I have done that then they are accountable and any future sins will be on their heads not mine. Our middle child is the least obedient to the gospel at this time, but he is an adult and can choose for himself. I keep loving him and encouraging him and praising the good in him. I expect that he will come around. After all, this is the child that didn't want to get baptized just because he turned eight. He wanted to know for himself that it was true and decide to be baptized on his own. It took about three months before he was ready. You are a good parent--no matter how your children turn out. Keep up the good work. (It's comforting to know that our perfect parent, Heavenly Father, lost one third of his children. That's what agency is all about. Choice.)

  2. RL, I've observed that in a few families who know who home school. I think the temprament of a parent who is able to home school helps to foster that communication of which you speak.

  3. RL,
    As someone who has worked with youth, especially in the scouting program I have seen the upsides to homeschooling and the downsides. I agree with Paul that it makes a huge difference who the parent(s) is that are teaching, and the age spread of children.

    I have worked with some wonderful kids like yours who have been challenged to think and grow intellectually and spiritually, and who connect with the other teenagers in the ward. They have become Eagle Scouts, gone on missions, married in the temple, and have been a blessing to their parents and society.

    It may just be my community, but I have seen more home schooled kids take the opposite path. There are a large number of children with a variety of ages, and as the boys become teenagers they can't wait to "get out." I had a priest who literally had one merit badge left to earn, he had already done his Eagle Project, but he felt so stifled between home and church activities, without other meaningful interactions, that refusing to earn the merit badge was the only part of his life he felt was under his control. He asked to have his name taken off the church rolls the Sunday after his 18th birthday, and left his parents home while they were in church.

    There are several other horror stories about a mother homeschooling six kids, including one with autism that resulted in all of the children being put in foster care for over three years.

    I was most personally involved with a family that I was the visiting teacher for. The mother dealt with severe depression issues, and the father was bi-polar. One of both of them had a family trust, so other than the father doing wedding photography, both parents were home to do homeschooling with the kids. I could tell that they loved their children very much and that they were trying to pass on both gospel and educational knowledge and activities to their children. The four oldest kids were all boys, they all earned their Eagle Scout awards before their 14th birthdays, and other than some acting out on camping or backpacking trips, they seemed to be doing well.

    As a visiting teacher, no other calling, I was asked to visit their home once a week instead of once a month because of the ongoing concerns of the ward leadership. As I was in their home often, I realized that while living their children, all of the conversations were really just one way. The parents would either tell them what to think, or ask a question over and over until they got the answer they wanted. When their first son turned 18 and could get a driver's license with his parents permission, he got a job, an apartment and a cell phone. His younger brothers ran away from home, usually to their brother's apartment, but not always. The last conversation I had with their parents indicated that they only have contact with their two youngest children, daughters, and even that is sporadic.

    This is not an anti-homeschooling post. Depending on how my son is doing in middle school next year I may homeschool him for a couple of years. I think that while having good relationships with our teenagers IS important, that recognizing that some time on the "dark side" may be far preferable to forcing them to stay close, and making it so they don't have a safe space to come back to when the "light" becomes more interesting to them.

  4. Julia, thanks for your observations.

    My own comment was based on our family's experience. When we moved home from an overseas assignment, my wife decided to homeschool our three younger school children at the time to help them in the transition from the private school they attended overseas to the local public school (which we like very much). Our decision was based on prior experience a few years earlier when our older sons struggled to make a similar transition.

    As it happened our oldest of the three children, a boy, hated the homeschooling thing and within a quarter he was back in middle school. Our two daughters, both elementary students, did well, but by the end of the year, my poor wife was exhausted and we all (including the kids) decided to send them back to public school the next year.

    I can't speak to your experience, but it sounds like there's a lot more than just homeschooling going on.

    Part of my point in these posts on the dark side is my own observation in my own family and others that often our kids take different paths than our own regardless of what kind of parents we are. It is often the choice of the kids that determines their path.

    We want to hope that if we have scripture reading and family prayer every day and home evening every week that everything will turn out fine. And it may in the eternities, but that does not spare us from bumps in the road along the way.