Can We Stop Blaming Parents for Teenage Behaviour?

September 11, 2019

Photo by Rich Smith on Unsplash, Boys of Bordeaux

The “when I was a kid” memes are everywhere. Typically they show kids without helmets jumping bikes over teetering homemade ramps, kids coming in after dark- their parents oblivious (and ambivalent) to their whereabouts all day, kids doing dangerous stunts while their parents share beers with the neighbours. These are often side by side with pictures of “kids today”: precious, coddled, delicate. The point of the memes is similar to the old, “Back when I went to school…” stories (“I had to walk thirty miles, through a blizzard”). When I was a kid I was tougher, more independent, no one watching over my every move- and I survived. We older adults gleefully share them and repost it, proud of our toughness, happy to point out our perceived difference with today’s generations.

And then we, the same crowd, turn around and blame parents today for not controlling their teenaged children better. For not having a handle on what they’re doing every second of the day, and not instructing them well enough that they would never entertain the notion of engaging in, well, teenage behaviour. Risky things, edgy things, things they’re not supposed to be doing. The things teenagers have done for time immemorial. 

I’m looking directly at my own vape community here, a lot of us. I see it all the time. “Parents should be fined,” “they should be reported to child services,” “huge parenting fail,” and a whole lot worse- and for what? For their kid getting caught vaping. Same people who proudly announce how vaping helped them kick a years long smoking habit dating back to when they themselves were teenagers. Those of us with hard ass parents, good parents

It puts us in a bind, arguing on the one hand to government officials that we’re doing our best to keep vaping out of the hands of teenagers but kids will be kids and they’re impossible to fully control and on the other, that it is the fault of parents for not being able to fully control these same kids. Can we accept the fact that teenagers are people on the boundary between a childhood they’ve left behind and adulthood that they’re on the brink of and they’re experimenting with all sorts of things that we’d generally prefer they didn’t? If it’s not a serious and immediate risk to their long term health and well-being, maybe we can just roll with it, even if we disapprove?

Because this dual message of vaping being 95% less harmful than smoking and then suggesting that parents who have kids who vape (or have vaped) should have those children removed from the home for bad parenting is just a bit head spinning. And it’s self defeating. We could have allies outside of the vape community and vape advocates if we could just get over ourselves and try to relate a little. Parenting is hard. Kids do stupid things. And if vaping is indeed 95% less harmful than smoking, why are you suggesting that the parent who bought their teenager a vape to help them kick smoking (which kids still do) deserves a financially crippling fine? Let’s all of us settle down a bit.

So long as we keep blaming parents for their teenagers vaping, they will come out swinging as hard as they have been to prove that they aren’t “irresponsible.” We’re putting them on the defense. Any of us who are parents know exactly how it feels when our kid gets into something that they shouldn’t. First reaction: fear. Second reaction: where did we mess up? Third reaction: anger. And it’s the anger that breaks through. So if we’re going to pile on when a parent is already at their most sensitive, where do you suppose that anger will be directed? It’s not their fault, it’s your fault, is the argument they’ll make. (And then we point a finger back and round and round it goes.)

We know that it is impossible to monitor teenagers 24-7. And we know that no matter the number of “good talks” we have with them, ultimately they’re going to make some decisions in  the heat of the moment that ignore all of our best instruction. It’s an overreach to suggest that because we want teenagers to abstain from something badly enough it will be so. Never. Not in a million years. They will vape, smoke, do drugs, drink, have sex, commit petty crimes, set fires, get into fights, lie, and anything else they decide to do in the moment, all while maintaining a casual disdain for our authority. (I know- not your kid, but everyone else’s kids.) We should be calling out government for suggesting such an absurdity- that we will be the generation to finally control teenage behaviour, not reinforcing it. 

We should be empathizing with parents whose kids get caught vaping, not shaming them or punishing them. We’re parents on both sides. ‘Sucks that your kid got busted vaping. Just keep the lines of communication open. Give them good information, it’s not the end of the world. Rough being the parent of a teenager, hey?’ And the same with government. ‘We’re doing our best to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers. We’re doing a way better job of it than the alcohol industry, who aren't held to account for teen drinking. Thankfully, the risk of one-time use or even casual experimentation are considerably lower than a lot of other things kids get into and there is no evidence that vaping is a gateway to smoking.’ 

We have to stop shooting potential allies at the gate and ourselves in the foot while we're at it.  

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