Curfews are one of my all-time favourite parenting tools. Let’s think of parenting like a building project (We’re building great people!), which requires us to have a kit bag filled with good strong tools. Tools that withstand the heavy lifting that the job requires.
What defines a good parenting tool for adolescents? For me, it ought to do several jobs. I like a multi-purpose tool — like a multi-head screwdriver. A good tool does three things. A good parenting tools teaches the child something important. It also communicates that we, the parents, care deeply about them. And it should grow a skill that they’ll need in order to grow up to be great people.
Curfews offer all three of those marvellous opportunities for parenting. Many parents hate curfews because they’re such a battleground. I, rather, see the curfew as an opportunity for us, the parents, to do some of our best work.
It starts with being clear about who is the parent and who is the child. We do not parent by committee or by consensus. We, the parents, are in charge. That’s our job. We sometimes wish to shirk it because it’s painful when they get really mad at us for setting limits, but we don’t negotiate curfews, because our goal as parents is not to be liked. It’s to parent. We’re the ones in charge and it’s not fair to our kids to get into a partnership that ignores our responsibility to be the ones doing the teaching and leading.
A curfew lets us teach, show how much we care and help them grow a skill. First we teach by setting a firm limit. “Your curfew is midnight. If you miss curfew you’ll be grounded next weekend.” From our refusal to back down they learn to accept limits. Which is step one, the precursor and precondition, to acquiring internal limits. Being teenagers, they will break those limits and come home after curfew. Our next job is to enforce the consequence — calmly and without anger. From our refusal to back down on the consequence, they learn to live with limits. Which gives them the chance to develop their own internal limits. They’ll need those very soon.
Second, the curfew, and its consequences, show how much we care. Teens who have no boundaries feel like they’re free floating in space — not a comfortable feeling. Teens experience boundaries as annoying — and safe. Their happy place is to be pushing against boundaries and complaining about them. The pushing isn’t pretty, and when we stand up — lovingly — to them, they know how much we care. Despite appearances to the contrary, it helps them feel loved. If you’re lucky they’ll tell you that when they’re 21.
And third, the curfew grows a skill they need for life. When parents provide external regulation of our kids’ lives, it allows the kids to develop the skill of self-regulation. Making healthy decisions about sleep, what you eat, ingest or inhale is called self-regulation. When kids go off to university, if they haven’t learned the skill of self-regulation, they tank.
And self-regulation is a learned skill. It comes with practice. Which comes after a parent who cares enough and has forced the teen to learn it via external regulation. Which is a fancy way to spell C-U-R-F-E-W.
Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the area of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.