Yes, your 'little angel' would do that: lessons learnt from 33,000 SA parents
Vanessa Raphaely runs 'The Village', a Facebook group for the parents of tweens, teens and young adults - and it's been incredibly eye-opening
After I left my directorship of Associated Media, I explored launching a "Sorbet for Teeth," where parents, busy professionals and image-conscious singles could get their teeth whitened and cleaned, fast and easily, in shopping malls.
Luckily for me - and the teeth of SA - that start-up idea was quickly, shelved, as The Village, the community of South African parents of tweens, teens and young adults that I had imagined would become my toothy brand ambassadors, took off beyond all my expectations.
The Facebook community, which is hailed as a beacon of kindness, harmony and support on social media, currently numbers 33,100 members with an unprecedented 91% engagement. It grows on average by 1,000 members a month.
After three years presiding over this community, have I learnt anything useful about parenting, human nature and keeping the peace in the war zone that is social media groups? You could say so.
THERE IS NO 'FIXING' A TEENAGER
To imagine that one's job as a parent is to somehow wrangle our children into the adult we think they should be is an act of misguided narcissism. Our role as parents is not to ensure that our offspring fulfil our idea of what success is. The task of parenting is to celebrate them - and help their own strengths and dreams flourish. Even if they do not line up neatly with your own.
Good parents don't necessarily raise "winners", but instill in their children confidence, resilience, grit and optimism. Our role is much less that of a boss and much more that of a sounding board, role model, cheerleader and affirming listener.
One of the biggest early lessons I learnt from wiser parents than I was to give advice only ever sparingly to my children. Empowering one's child to find their own solutions and strategies is infinitely more valuable than teaching them to obey commands and fulfil other people's dreams and wishes.
Unhappy teenagers are mostly Shadows, Pleasers or Broncos. Of these, funnily enough, Broncos are the easiest to raise. A bucking, roaring, challenging teen usually needs only clear consequences for their misdeeds and a firm but gentle rein.
The other two archetypes are much more worrisome, as anxiety and depression are very real problems among teenagers. A secretive, silent, compliant child is harder to reach than a hooligan.
Whether this almost universal sadness afflicting many young people is fuelled by the Kardashians or social media or other societal ills doesn't really matter. Depression and its scary cousins - loneliness, alienation, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and actions - are a reality. We need to adjust the traditional, punitive parenting methods of our own youth with something much more humane, very quickly.
I'm proud to say that The Village (which 85% of the time recommends kindness, asking for help, understanding, perspective and patience as strategies for dealing with kids in distress) is doing an important job for its members, championing this gentler, more empathetic method of child-rearing.
PARENTS LEARN TO LIKE YOURSELVES
Parents had better learn to like themselves between their kids' ages of 12 and 34. Teenagers aren't very loving, as a rule. The condescension, disdain and disrespect they toss in their parents' direction doesn't mean that they don't love them, but many
of them do strongly believe they were not put on this planet to make any
of us look like #parentoftheyear.
THE BASICS MATTER
Food, sleep, exercise. The enemy of all of these are screens, however. And no-one knows how to vanquish the screen problem. Don't give up. Keep trying.
ASK FOR HELP
Have no shame about parent or child hitting a skid. Whether it's specialists, medication or a shoulder to cry on, a little bit of hope, expertise and assistance can make a disproportionate difference to a bleak situation.
THE INDUSTRY STANDARD
A badly behaved or worrying teenager is the industry standard model. All hope is not lost if one's child is the talk of the school's WhatsApp group for doing something appalling. Teenagers do smoke weed or cigarettes, fail subjects or a grade, get thrown out of school, even shoplift, cut themselves, or experiment with sex and alcohol.
While you might find the behaviour terrifying and surely the action of an alien inhabiting your perfect moppet's body, your beloved child is still very much there.
Teens can both be good at heart and badly behaved. Sleepless nights (you thought babies were bad? Ha. Ha. Ha.) are just part of the parents' job. As someone says on The Village practically every day, parenting is not for the weak of heart. No matter how hideous a teenager's behaviour is, the greatest gift a parent can bestow on them is optimism and faith in their future. Parental fear, anger and anxiety are infectious diseases to which our children are extremely susceptible.
NOT MY KID
Sorry! Your child very probably is indulging in at least some of the vices I mention above. Don't ever think "Oh my little angel will never do that. I'm so lucky."
Don't ever think 'Oh my little angel will never do that. I'm so lucky'
If you have a party animal, or a moth to the flame, a sheep or a kingpin, the chances of them thinking (when faced with their girlfriend or boyfriend in a dark space, a spliff or a shot of Jagermeister), "Oh, Mom and Dad won't like that. Better not," is close to zero. Buckle up, Buttercup!
You can't stop hormone-fuelled teens experimenting. Your best option, as a parent, is just to catch your children when they fall, keep the lines of communication open and love them through the whole unlovely mess of it.
PATIENCE IS A MUST
Patience is the most underrated of parental skills. The road to happy adulthood is a long and winding one and there is no correlation between the stars of the U15A water polo and rugby team and eventual success and happiness. It's impossible to predict the winners at the start of this particular race. Each child needs to have cheerleaders believing that their time to shine will come. (Even and especially when they have dragged their family name through the mud, by stupid, reckless or criminal behaviour.)
GOOD SCHOOLS MATTER
Our country is bursting with potential and talent that is not adequately nurtured, due to our unequal education system. The pressure on the best schools and universities is extreme and the weeks around acceptance and rejection are among the saddest times in the group. Acceptance in a great government school is, to me, one of the most precious gifts that can fall into a family's lap.
SOCIAL MEDIA HARMONY
It's easier than experts lead us to believe to create and maintain a harmonious space on social media: clear rules around evangelism and manners, role modelling, tolerance, frequent counting to 10, empathy, respect, sending perpetrators to the naughty corner . that list just about covers the course work. Being the "Niceness Ninja" of The Village is a lot like parenting, actually.
There are some subjects that will turn even the official "Happiest Group on Facebook" into a seething pit of argument, insults and meanness. These include religion, vegetarianism, pedigree pets, the contents of the new sex-education curriculum, vaccinations and any criticism of any legacy private school.
I learnt early to ban discussion of most of these subjects outright (Villagers are not allowed to suggest their religion as a solution for anyone else's problem) or to post content without allowing comment. As Admin, I also am omnipresent and sometimes threaten the badly behaved with exile. I resort to this much less than you would think - I have only ever thrown 15 people off the group. Members seem to want to remain as they find the community extremely useful. So I have both carrots and sticks to ensure good behaviour.
Our real-life communities are struggling. Human beings are social creatures who love to share information, help each other and receive advice from their elders or fellow travellers. We thrive on banter, shared in-jokes, gossip and a comforting sense of belonging to a tribe. Due to SA's crime rate, societal division and economic reality, strong bonds within communities are hard to achieve IRL.
The Village is a virtual community that feels like a family of friends. There is always someone "on The Village" to offer answers, advice, commiserations or share the joy, even if they are only online. I think many of these online communities fulfil crucially important functions for their members. Loneliness, I read last week, kills as many people as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Our children are not growing up in a worse world than we did, or their grandparents did. Our world is unpredictable and a combination of beautiful and terrible - and always has been. In fact, I argue that many of our children are significantly better off than any generation before them. Those of them who have a decent education, health care, access to the sophisticated joys of the 21st century and involved parents, are already so privileged in comparison to the vast majority of the world, we should spend a lot more time enjoying them and a lot less time worrying about them.
After all, as I tell my four hooligans, "I could have bought a ski resort for the money I've spent on you. Be nice to me." When they aren't, I turn to The Village.
• You can find The Village on Facebook.