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Pediatrician is changing the way we think about teens with 'lighthouse parenting' tips

Dr. Ken Ginsburg’s advice for parents is like a hug, TED talk and Masterclass rolled into one.

parenting teens
Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

'Lighthouse parenting' can help make raising teens less rocky.

As a parent of teens, I often wonder: Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this? I don’t mean the warnings and complaints about how challenging the teen years are. I don’t mean all of the “just you wait” admonitions. I don’t mean the cliches and memes. What I want to know is why no one told me how awesome raising teens can be.

Don’t get me wrong, raising teens is not without its challenges. But for the most part, the teen years are portrayed as something to survive, not something to enjoy—and Dr. Ken Ginsburg is on a mission to change that.

A pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and co-founder and director of programs at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, Dr. Ginsburg has focused his career on changing how we think about, treat and raise teenagers.

His message of optimism is a welcome respite from the constant doomsday messages we hear about teenagers. The cliches, warnings and complaints about teens start early and continue often. Parents need to vent—and there is a lot to vent about—but the narratives we tell about teens are so one-sided and predominantly negative that I’ve been legit shocked at how fulfilling, rewarding and—dare I say—fun raising teens can be. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?

Ginsburg told Upworthy he suspects that part of the reason for the success of his latest book—"Congrats, You’re Having a Teen"—is that people are hungry for a book about teens that doesn’t focus on survival.

Raising teens isn’t all sunshine and roses. It is nerve-wracking, terrifying and emotional. But Ginsburg has made it his life’s work to dispel common myths about teens. Some key culprits: the misconception that teens don’t care what their parents think, that teens are inherently risk-prone and that teens don’t act rationally. To counteract the damaging impact of these myths, Dr. Ginsburg promotes “lighthouse parenting.”

“Parents,” Dr. Ginsburg advises, “you should be like a lighthouse for your child—a stable force on the shoreline from which they should measure themselves against. You should look down at the rocks and make sure they don’t crash against them. Look into the waves and trust that they will learn to ride them, and it’s your job to prepare them to do so.”

Unlike other talked-about parenting styles, like helicopter parenting and free-range parenting, lighthouse parenting—or balanced parenting—is grounded in science. Decades of research shows that not only does lighthouse parenting yield better academic, social, mental/emotional health and behavior outcomes, but (perhaps most importantly) it also leads to better relationships between parents and their children.

How do we tell the difference between rocks and waves? Is graduating from high school a rock or a wave? What about getting into college? Is underage drinking a choppy wave or a sharp rock?

Ginsburg explains it like this: Waves are challenges that you can ride through with the right skill sets, but rocks are dangers you might not survive no matter how prepared you are. Didn’t study for an important test? A wave. Getting in the car with a driver who has been drinking? A rock, definitely a rock.

I’ll be honest, in today’s increasingly high-stakes and ultra-competitive world of college admissions, travel sports and prestigious schools, it can be hard to know when to step in and when to let your child lead the way—especially when you know a wave might crash on top of them, leaving them gasping for air. But Ginsburg has a navigational tool for that too: think about the 35-year-old you’re raising.

When we look at success narrowly in terms of accomplishments, Ginsburg says we’re focusing on what our children are doing rather than who they are being and becoming. But when parents shift their focus onto the 35-year-old version of their teen, we look at success very differently with a focus on who they really are.

“The starting point is to know your child,” he says. “For a child to be ultimately successful, it has to be success that matches who they really are, not your vision of who they might become.”

Another mind-blowing piece of advice? Raise teens for their second job, not their first. Their first job might be influenced by accomplishments like good grades and high SAT scores, but their second job is when character traits like compassion and perseverance have a chance to shine.

Being a lighthouse, raising the 35-year-old and preparing them for their second job can be easier said than done, especially when a teen is slamming a door in your face or telling you (once again) that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But our teens aren’t pushing us away, Ginsburg says, they are simply struggling with their own growing independence.

The frustration is real, he acknowledges, but it is rooted in misunderstandings about teen development. Research shows that young people actually do care deeply about what their parents think, and they want to have good relationships with their parents.

So stay calm, be the lighthouse, ride the waves.

“The most protective thing in a young person’s life is to be known, seen, and valued just as you are, with all of your strengths and all of your limitations,” he told Upworthy. “When you know that the person who knows you the most, knows your character strengths and those areas in need of improvement—and that person continues to adore you, that gives you strength to launch into adulthood truly secure in who you are. That’s what gives you the strength to navigate the waves of adolescence when other people are challenging who you are.”

Ginsburg’s book was released in early October and he's been doing television interviews that are resonating with many people. I’ll admit, I was on the verge of tears for nearly our entire interview. His advice feels like a hug, a TED talk and a Masterclass on parenting all rolled into one. In the words of Sheinelle Jones, who interviewed him on TODAY, “This was a sermon.”

Amen.

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