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Sometimes parenting is walking a tightrope

My experience has convinced me that most parents of high school and college-age kids fall into one of two camps:

  • those who prefer pretty lies from their children
  • those who accept the ugly truth

The main difference between the two is that the former don’t know it, while the latter are acutely aware.  Parents who prefer pretty lies are the ones who think,“My child would never do that!”, when everyone else seems to know their child IS the one who is doing that.

I’ve been both parents, so I’m not pointing fingers.  My hope is to encourage all of us to evolve into the kind of parents who can handle the truth–be it good, bad or ugly.

It helps to consider that the motive that drives a child to lie is fear:

  • Fear of consequences.
  • Fear of disappointing someone they care about.

The challenge for parents is to figure out how to minimize fear to determine the truth.

I’m not suggesting minimizing the consequence.  I happen to be a BIG fan of natural consequences; they can be a fantastic teacher.

Parent-directed consequences, however, are trickier when dealing with older children, especially if you have a legal adult still living under your roof.

If you have more than one child, it’s probable that what works for one doesn’t work for the others.  Some children are more compliant and responsive to correction, and others are wired with a strong sense of entitlement.

Here’s something to consider, though:

“Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”  (Attribution is debated)

Put another way: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.”

In other words, when trying to figure out 1)how to get to the heart of your child, and 2) how to deal with lying and whatever is being lied about, you’re going to have to:

• up the ante.
• get smarter.
• try a new approach.

All of this is hard, mentally exhausting, and creatively demanding.

I’m not a “parenting expert” and I don’t have a Ph.D. in child psychology;  but I am a mom of 21, 19 and 16-year-old children.

The older my children get, the more I’m concerned about our having open, honest relationships.  Not that they have to tell me everything in their lives, but that they know they can if they want to, and I will love and accept them without condition.

Some practices that have helped me along the way:

1.  Parent with an endgame in mind.

When I was pregnant, I started watching families with older children, trying to learn and incorporate what I saw other parents seeming to do well.  My hope and heart was to raise responsible, respectful, charitable young adults whose company I’d choose even if they weren’t my own.

Though they’re still in school and hardly perfect, who they’re becoming is who I prayed they would be – with a little spice and challenge thrown in.

2.  Take a deep breath, step back and pray.

I mean this one, literally and figuratively.  If you find yourself beating your head against a wall, consider the above definition of insanity.  What you’re doing ain’t working (been there, done that, don’t want the stinkin’ tee shirt).

So consider what you can do differently; try another approach. In a recent, personal parenting challenge, I prayed for the wisdom to see our circumstance in new light with a fresh perspective.  I asked myself what approach would reach MY heart.  (If you’re interested, this prayer guide has been helpful for my college and high school children.)

Of course not all Simple Mom readers share my faith conviction, but I still believe these principals apply regardless of religious persuasion or lack thereof.  Meditation, contemplation and consideration can give your mind the space for new ideas.

3.  Acknowledge the positives.

Eliminate the labels “failure” and “disappointment”.  You may have failed at something but that doesn’t make you a failure; your child may have disappointed you but she’s not a disappointment.

Focus on the things you’ve done well, where you’ve found satisfaction as a parent; notice the good choices and accomplishments of your child.  Once you start naming them, you’ll see even more.

4.  Learn from the negatives.

Draw a line connecting cause and effect.  If you discover your child has been lying about the bad choices (s)he’s making, take a look at the climate you’re creating for your home.

I am not suggesting your child’s poor decisions are your fault (!); I’m asking you to recognize and dig into the fears that led him/her to lie.  Their bad choices are all their own, so let them have ownership; do not let them put on a victim hat by blaming anyone or anything else for the mess they’ve created.

And a word of encouragement–if you have a prodigal, there is always room for hope.

5.  Keep sight of the big picture.

When you’re parenting toddlers and tweens, it feels like you’ll never get to the teenage-and-beyond years, and then BAM! They’re here!  Extend a lot of grace to yourself; you’re no more perfect than your children.  Trust that you’re the best mom (or dad) your kids could have, and that you ARE getting it more right than not.

Recognize that your children are helping to shape and sharpen you, too.  Anticipate that some of those mountains you were willing to die on when your kids were younger are more like molehills by the time they’re 20.

And remember:  you aren’t raising your babies for yourself, you’re raising them for someone else.  One day they will leave the nest.

You needn’t fear the high school and college years!  Bumps and bruises along the way are part of the refining process for children AND parents.  This season has been a delight to me, in spite of the occasional challenge.

Older parents: what practices or principles can you offer to those who are soon following in your footsteps?  Younger parents: what questions do you have we might address in future posts?  I’d love to hear from you all!

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Amy

    I think your point of life being their best teacher is a great one. Although, we certainly gave our own consequences and guidance. We also allowed our children to make many (relatively safe) bad choices. So, that prayerfully their future choices would be from their own convictions not ours. I think the other thing I had to learn was not to react to everything. My children have always been pretty open with me. In large part because even though on the inside I am screaming, “You What!”…on the outside I am saying, “hmmm, and how did that make you feel?” or “and then what happened?” Keeping it calm…hiding the storm 😉

    • Robin Dance


      You sound a lot like me :). And one thing you said is KEY: “…their future choices would be from their own convictions not ours.” THAT is what so many fail to realize! It doesn’t serve anyone when children don’t grow up with personal conviction.

      Thanks for leading the comments–I’ve been on the road since this post was published without wifi. Crazy.

  2. Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy

    Tsh and Robin,

    I so appreciate these posts on raising tweens and teens and beyond. (I know Robin mentioned college above, but I can’t go there just yet.) My oldest is going to be in middle school next year, which FREAKS ME OUT. Posts like this are helping me ease into the whole idea of parenting older kids. Thanks for that. I need it. 🙂

    • Robin Dance


      One thing I hope to communicate: while raising teenagers is CHALLENGING, it can be delightful. I have LOVED this years with my children; and I truly believe when issues arise, it’s incumbent on ME to be wiser, calmer and creative-r to figure out the right response. I can’t always say it works out that way, but when it does, it’s wonderful :).

  3. Jessica

    This post is so helpful, definitely pinning it so I can refer back to it over the years. I have a 4 month old little girl and I’m often thinking of the future, not to wish away the years, but like you say to keep the endgame in mind and ensure I’m putting the right foundations in place to raise a compassionate young adult.

    I would find posts around age-appropriate discipline techniques and styles, as well as language to use and avoid, very helpful.

    • Robin Dance


      Good for you for keeping an eye toward the future without “living” there :).

      I’m sharing your suggestion with our author team in case anyone with younger children wants to chime in.

      A quick, two-cents reply by me:

      A general guideline for us was to tie consequences to disobedience, not necessarily “punishment”. Consistency is a big one, too, and hard to maintain (but if you’re striving for it, that helps 🙂 ).

      Eliminate the words “always” and “never”; not a bad one to get rid of in marriage, too.

  4. Caroline Starr Rose

    Thank you so much. While mine are younger than yours, I’ll have a thirteen year old next spring. I don’t see a lot of parenting advice on blogs beyond the early years. This is very much appreciated!

    • Robin Dance


      When I write my column at Simple Mom, I do so with a hint of fear and trepidation–I never want to sound like I’m always right or what works for me will necessarily work for everyone else. BUT, *IF* what we’ve done has contributed to the way our kids are turning out, I’m glad to share our approach in the hope it might be of value to others.

      I wrote an (almost) 31-day series year before last, and ONE DAY I’ll package it as an ebook. If you’d like to scan it, (or search my posts here at Simple Mom), you’ll learn how we’re trying to parent our kids.

  5. Lucille

    I appreciated this post. My son is going to be 11 and so he’s on the very teetering edge of puberty. So far things have been very smooth but I’m always so fearful (about outside influence and such) that any time I catch a hint of what might be termed insolence or attitude, I sometimes find myself starting to overreact, this in the manner of “gotta nip THIS in the bud”.

    On the other hand, I know that thus far he has shown himself to be a little man of grace and kindness, and really, I’ve been lucky, and need to chill. I like what Amy posted above about “keeping it calm…hiding the storm”… YES! That is my intention!

    I agree with keeping the endgame in mind and observing older children that act in a manner that you like. (So, too, observing those you don’t and what about that behavior you don’t).

    Having an only child, I don’t have the benefit of learning from my mistakes for the “next go around” —- so I’m learning it as I go along, and hope against hope that my heart will keep my head and mouth in line 🙂

    Thanks for this post!

    • Robin Dance


      One thing I’ll mention that surprised me was how emotional my SON was during puberty! I expected with my older daughter, and she wasn’t that much. But his fuse became extremely short and he’d CRY out of anger/frustration at times. I was unprepared for how up/down he was…but realized it really was tied to raging hormones. (He’s not a crier so this was a departure from who he was/is.) You can’t excuse unreasonable behavior during that season, but understanding helps you to be more generous in your response.

  6. momma tee

    I am sending my only child off to college next week. It’s been a wild ride this last 18 years on my own her, for most of the years – till high school. I had her at 34 which is different than having a child early – you’re wiser, but no guarantees – I still made mistakes. A couple of reflections:
    I agree natural consequences are great. Especially when you have a child that you can take away everything from and they just don’t care. I learned early on that my job was to guide, rather than to control my child.
    The lying….. OOOOHHHHH the lying… It gauls me. It’s fun though to catch them in one that they see coming, they then think you are the great and powerful oz.
    Never shame your child, even just in front of you.
    Apologize when YOU are wrong. Let them see the power of a GOOD true apology and how one can grow and move on from it.
    Find their language – what motivates you may not motivate them.
    Keep your cool when you are “parenting” – you can’t take back hurtful words
    Don’t spend too much time mad at them, that’s what they’ll remember
    Be their shelter in the storm.
    Make connections later to earlier lessons so they can see how things work.
    Lastly, you will make mistakes – I have – one funny (ish) one – after I discovered she drank. I decided she should be punished by having to drink more (did i see this in a MOVIE!!!) so i sit her down with a bottle of jack daniels and gave her a shot. she drank it, i poured another, she reluctantly downed that one… the third she flat out said no… then went to bed… feeling no worse, woke up with no hangover and i was just the parent who make their kid drink for no reason…. DUMB…. we laugh at it now and big surprise she’s not drinking… i’m not sure, how i dodged that bullet… well, for the moment. we’re safe at school because it’s a DRY campus so we’ll see. Next week, I’m going to be smiling and crying as I say goodbye to her.
    Cherish this time, it goes FAST!!!!!

    • momma tee

      ps – sorry for all the errors, i wrote that VERY fast….

    • Robin Dance

      Momma Tee,

      So many of your points I’ve written about (here at SM or on my own blog!) :). So great minds??

      One of my favorites that you point out is to be their shelter in the storm. It’s a hard, cruel world out there, and it’s CRUCIAL children have a safe place to retreat. That was one of my goals early on, that our home be a refuge to them (or their friends). I’d say we accomplished it, too; this summer several of their friends dropped in to see ME even when my babies weren’t around. Talk about blessing.

      (and your story was amusing :). I never tried THAT one but I “get” why you did…!)

  7. Faigie

    I don’t know, maybe I’m weird but, I found the infant stages even harder than the teen years. And I do think the more open (I dont mean sharing all your personal stuff with them) you are with your kids and keep the communication lines open, the better off those teen years will be.

    • Robin Dance


      I get that; the infant/toddler stages are physically exhausting. You’re learning to be a mom, they’re learning EVERYTHING, and they depend on you for everything. And the first year they can’t tell you WHY THEY’RE CRYING!

  8. Jackie Folkert

    Live here now. Be present.
    So true, right? But the note above about taking a long-range view of parenting while your child is young is wise. It is a reality slap in the head, which is helpful as I fret over my potty resistant 3-year-old son. Yes, he will be trained sooner or later. And yes, I will wish that all I had to fret about was potty training when he is sixteen years old.
    I taught high school students before my mommy days began, and I marveled at the parents who asked 25-year-old me for parenting advice. Really? I thought. Is parenting a teen that mystifying that you would trust my point of view despite my barely being out of my teens?
    I think that parenting teens is intimidating because their failures can bring such life altering consequences. Yet, teens are so fascinating and can bring such fulfillment to parents despite the challenges. (Obviously.) We can live with our heads in the sand to cope until graduation, but that doesn’t cultivate an authentic relationship with our teens. I hope–HOPE–that I can do that when my 3 reach those years.

    • Robin Dance


      Teaching that age group will help you when you’re there. I suppose parents asked YOU because you were with so many everyday; and it shows how challenging this season can be for parents.

      I can’t stress enough how good it can be, though; and while there are no guarantees, I think the groundwork begins when your children are young.

  9. Betsy

    I think parenting teens is so challenging because they are becoming their own people making their own decisions, yet still lacking in maturity. Many things are beyond our control now. What works for me is to use humor, try to be approachable, yet insist on basic respect. I also apologize when I blow it, and amazingly my kids do too.

    Open communication about anything is key. Last year one of my kids sent me an E-MAIL divulging something BIG they’d done wrong. First I was broken hearted; then I realized how thankful I should be that my teen let me know and opened the door to communication.

    • Robin Dance


      Oh, yeah–you reminded me of what another commenter said: it’s SO important to apologize when you blow it! It humanizes a parent; and I think it makes us more trustworthy if we can admit when we’re wrong.

      I’ve learned to have a Poker Face. It’s more inviting than the SHOCKED, DROPPED JAW expression. And, yes, I’m thankful your child shared a hard truth with you. Good for you for being thankful, rather than only hurt and angry.

  10. Franziska

    Thank you for this post! While my children are only 2 and 4, I think the perspective of a mom with older children is so wonderful to have. I might be wrong with this, but it always looks like there are many people blogging and sharing their ideas about the early years, but not so many who talk about life after elementary school. It’s great to get some insight early on so we can prepare and learn. 🙂

    • Robin Dance


      There are a few reasons there are fewer posts @ older children: a) privacy for older children, and b) who wants to sound like they have it all figured out? 🙂

  11. joan

    I think one thing that really helped balance out the potential difficulties of those years was to establish family traditions, vacations, and as much fun as possible to cover a multitude of sins. We had a yearly camping trip with friends, and just made home a fun place to be with an open door policy as much as we could. Sometimes I shudder at the mistakes we made(our kids are 35, 32, and 28), but out kids forgave a lot because we made so many good memories( and we did too). This last year we did the same same camping trip with the next generation of our families, and it brought tears to my eves of God’s Goodness and Grace. We still sang Do, Re, Me on the bus…

    • Robin Dance


      THAT is a treasure!

  12. jasi

    we’re trying to make consequences into a sort of positive. i mean, no one wants to get into trouble so we, as humans, try to avoid negative stimuli. but when i explain to my kids that coming clean is part of fixing something, making an already bad situation better, it feels more like the beginning of a solution rather than a problem.

    i mean, if you explain to them that the worst is over when the bad thing is done, that they can make it better, then that’s a more healthy attitude for both of us. consequences then become the constructive work of repairing something, whether that’s a physical thing or trust. and when it’s repaired that’s cause for praise in my book. turning a negative situation into a positive experience in character building.

    • Robin Dance


      Consequences: the constructive work of repairing something.


  13. Elizabeth

    I have a 19yo daughter in her second year of college. The best thing I learned – be a parent, not a best friend. There will be time to be a friend later but in the teens they need a parent. Someone to set guidelines, discuss limits, teach lessons, and be endlessly forgiving. Friends don’t do those things.

    The second best thing I learned – let punishment and justice be swift and appropriate. I had a door-slammer. She spent many days (then weeks, then most of one whole summer) with no door on her bedroom because she would slam it (which I had asked/told/demanded she not do).

    Say you are sorry when you are in the wrong. Let them see the consequences you face when you make a mistake so they know consequences don’t end when they are “grown up.” And get all the hugs you can. Because there will be plenty of times you want one and all you get is an eyeroll.

    • Robin Dance


      You make a great point: friendship will come, but they still need a parent during these years! I’ve seen many friends invite friendship before it was “time” and those blurred lines made their parent/child relationship difficult. Pearls of wisdom here :).

  14. Whitney

    Thank you so much for this post! We having been going through many trials over the past two years with our oldest (she’s now 14). It’s nice to have some encouragement along the way!

    • Robin Dance


      Parenting t(w)eens ain’t for sissies. Amen.

  15. Guest

    I’m in my late thirties and have young children so I can’t speak to parenting teenagers from personal experience. You make some truly great points but the stark options of – pretty lies or ugly truth – dont seem fitting to my teenage experience. Being human, I was obviously far from perfect but honestly, there weren’t a lot of ugly truths. My closest friends were also Christians who had similar values and beliefs. We didn’t drink, we didn’t smoke, we didn’t do drugs, we didn’t fight with our parents, we were pretty boring. Maybe those aren’t the things you are talking about with ugly truths but I guess I just want to encourage parents that not all teenagers push boundaries and not all parents will encounter super “ugly” truths. My husband’s teen years…that’s another story. 🙂

    • Robin Dance

      Hi Guest,

      Yes, thank you. That was a broad statement of mine. Some “ugly truths” are minimal if you’re making comparisons; I suppose in some instances, it can be as simple as your Very Good Kid who Never Gets Into Trouble (and I have one of those) making a choice you wish they hadn’t…and you only find out after the fact (for a reason). In that case, it’s probably not so ugly, but something you would have advised against because of the “what-ifs”. And if you never have any of THOSE either? Kudos!! 🙂

      • Guest

        Ha! Wouldn’t that mean we had Jesus for a child? 😉

        Like I sad, I was most definitely NOT perfect but I feel sad when I hear people around me talking about the awful teens like it’s an inevitable. For sure it’s inevitable that there will be bumps but not necessarily that the entire road has washed away.

        One thing that I should have shared before…my mom is simply…amazing. I knew I could tell her anything (and did!). Also, to the first poster’s point about convictions, I had convictions in my own heart about what was right and wrong so it wasn’t just my parent’s beliefs about what I should or shouldn’t do. That’s a huge prayer of mine…that the Lord will touch my children’s hearts, that they will be close to Him and that He will be their compass especially when I’m not with them every day.

  16. Bill Gelwick

    Ruling by fear is never a good idea. As Stalin, Hitler, or Hussein. Oh wait, you can’t. The same principle works in the home though. Many parents don’t realize that if they have the respect of their kids, behavioral issues become far less an issue. And, you cannot force respect. Want your kids to respect you? Then be someone respectable, as well as respective of them and others. Lead by example, not fear.

    • Robin Dance



      “Want your kids to respect you? Then be someone respectable…” Yessir!

  17. Alissa

    Here’s my questions:
    How to we keep those lines of communication open? I know it’s a long process and one that we start when they are little. Any other concrete or wacky ideas to keep your pre-teen/teens talking?

    I would also love to hear advice on ways to encourage your kids into life-giving friendships. I am aware that as my son moves through the elementary years, he’s going to be making the friends that are going to be influencing his decisions (or vice versa) when he’s a teen. One of my friends with teens seeks to make her home the favorite “hang out” spot for her kids. What other ideas are there?

    P.S. I always love your columns, Robin. Always an acute reminder that I need to be thinking ahead as a parent!

  18. Jorid

    Thank you so much for such an encouraging blog!
    As a mom of 3 teens there are lots of emotions going on in our household. It is such a great time to be able to talk with your kids about so many important issues. Even this afternoon I shared with my boys about abortion!
    We are a family of different cultures living in a third culture, trying to encourage families in this nation to build strong families. It’s a challenge, but a great privilege to live life in a “glass bowl” being watched on our good and bad days!
    I’m looking forward to receive more encouraging stuff!
    Bless you!

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